The wild relatives of some of the world’s most important crops are at risk of extinction, threatening efforts to breed plants with greater resilience to climate change and improve yields, according to a new paper presented Tuesday at the IUCN World Conservation Congress.
The congress, organized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, runs through Sept. 11 in Marseille, France.
Researchers studied the wild relatives of nine crops including corn, beans, squash, chili peppers, vanilla, avocado and cotton, all of which are native to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They found that 35 percent of the 225 species studied are threatened with extinction, due to human activities including encroachment on habitats, a shift from traditional to mechanized farming practices, contamination from genetically-modified crops and the use of pesticides and herbicides, according to the paper published in the journal Plants, People, Planet.
Vanilla fared the worst; all eight wild varieties of the species examined are listed as endangered or critically endangered by the IUCN. Researchers found that the wild relatives of 92 percent of cotton and 60 percent of avocado species also were threatened, along with nearly a third of bean species.
Crop wild relatives are “veritable treasure troves of genetic information,” said Jane Smart, the director of IUCN’s Biodiveristy Group. Plant breeders use these plants to develop new varieties that better withstand heat, drought and pests—which will only become more critical to food security and farmer livelihoods as climate change progresses. Wild relatives have already been used to breed new varieties such as higher-yielding corn and blight-resistant potatoes.
“With a changing climate, perhaps crops are going to fail more often, and we are going to need new varieties that are resilient and resistant,” Smart said. “If we don’t have those genes in the wild, then we can’t do the necessary breeding to ensure we develop varieties that are resistant to these threats.”
Can conservationists and farmers build common cause?
The world’s need for food is destroying the planet, said Bruno Oberle, director general of the IUCN on Monday, and the only way forward is to build common cause between environmentalists and farmers. The two groups have long had a fraught relationship: The agriculture industry is critical to food security, but it uses 40 percent of Earth’s land and 70 percent of its freshwater resources. And, according to the IUCN, farming is responsible for 80 percent of biodiversity loss.
Still, farmers should be conservationists’ most obvious ally, Oberle said, noting that both have deep emotional and cultural ties to the land, and both rely on a healthy landscape. He called for deeper alliances between the two groups, and making that happen is part of a growing emphasis on sustainable agriculture at the IUCN.
Echoing Oberle’s words, Julien Denormandie, France’s minister of Agriculture and Food, said farmers and environmentalists need to leave behind unproductive antagonistic attitudes and “build sustainable models together.” France’s Covid-19 recovery plan includes a number of provisions to support sustainable agriculture, such as replanting hedgerows, which are a haven for farmland species of birds and insects. It also encourages production of protein crops such as soy in order to reduce France’s reliance on imported crops, such as Brazilian soy, that is often linked to deforestation. But Denormandie noted that trade policy must change to make sure that European producers who use sustainable methods are not undercut by growers in other, less-regulated countries who use environmentally destructive methods.
Agricultural policies must also be reoriented so that they no longer subsidize destructive practices, said Stewart Maginnis, the global director of the IUCN’s Nature-Based Solutions Group. Instead, farmers should be financially rewarded for keeping farmland healthy through agroecological and regenerative practices. “Conservationists have to care about farm income,” he said.
Alice Ruhweza, the Africa director for the World Wildlife Fund, said environmental and agricultural policy needs to use a landscape approach—one that takes into account a range of factors including food production, safe drinking water, sanitation, gender equality and access to financing for small farmers. She cited the example of two projects that successfully integrated both conservation and food security elements. In Brazil, Kenya and Sri Lanka, farmers reintroduced underutilized food crops that were then incorporated into school meals, increasing bio- and dietary diversity. In Paraguay, farmers replanted native trees and created community gardens in the richly biodiverse Atlantic Forest–simultaneously combating deforestation and increasing food security.
Food giants detail regenerative-ag plan
In another session Monday, some of the food industry’s biggest players—and fiercest competitors—were making common cause of their own, as part of an effort to scale up regenerative agriculture, a set of practices designed to counter climate change by rebuilding soil’s carbon storage capacity and increasing soil biodiversity.
Nestle and PepsiCo are two of more than 25 companies that are part of the One Planet Business for Biodiversity coalition, which was formed in 2018 by the former CEO and chairman of Danone. The coalition’s aims include reducing deforestation, boosting biodiversity and increasing regenerative agriculture. One of its strengths is its “pre-competitive” nature, which means companies aren’t penalized for taking sometimes costly steps to protect the environment while competitors continue business as usual.
The group presented a set of objectives and indicators to help measure success as companies work to scale up regenerative agriculture across their supply chains, including tracking pesticide use, percentage of natural habitat left per hectare, the amount of crop rotation and farmer annual income. This information will be made public in annual sustainability reports.