And several researchers members of the American Society of Agronomy (ASA) and Crop Science Society of America (CSSA) say it couldn't come at a better time. The lack of attention has put crop wild relatives in a precarious position, says ASA and CSSA member Stephanie Greene. Green is a plant geneticist with the USDA-ARS in Prosser, WA and the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System, the country's primary steward of seed and other crop genetic material. Twenty percent of all wild plants are now threatened with extinction, according to recent estimates, and that's before the potential impacts of climate change are factored in. Yet, "as the world moves forward with all these initiatives to conserve biodiversity," Greene says, "it's recognized that crop wild relatives have been left behind."
Green is leading new efforts to tally crop wild relatives living in the United States, identifying which are most important to global and American agriculture, and developing a nationwide strategy for protecting the plants both in gene banks and in the wild. But conserving crop wild relatives is only the first step. The real goal is to get the diverse stock of genetic material, or germplasm, into the hands of plant breeders, especially those seeking to adapt crops to the increased drought, greater disease pressure, and erratic weather climate change is expected to bring.