This was one of the key messages to come out of a series of meetings of leaders of grain genebanks across the globe in Australia this month.
Marie Haga, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust said there was a lot of genetic material from wild relatives of food crops out there that was yet to be collected, let alone assessed for any benefits.
According to data compiled from genebanks across the globe surrounding the distribution and conservation of 1076 wild relatives of 81 important food crops, more than 95 per cent of the wild relatives are insufficiently represented in genebanks, with 29pc totally missing.
And Ms Haga said the race was on to collect wild relatives before they disappeared.
“Losing diversity is losing opportunities for creating a food secure future. The diversity of wild relatives of the crops we know represents a game changer for agriculture but many of them and their habitats are under threat from urbanization, pollution, deforestation, war and climate change,” she said.
She described wild crop relatives as to our food plants what wolves are to dogs, distant cousins of well-known food crops like rice, potato maize and wheat.
And the wild plants hold a treasure trove of genetic material waiting to be exploited by plant breeders.
“Collecting and conserving crop wild relatives provides scientists, breeders and farmers around the world with plants that have resistance to extreme weather conditions, and diseases and pests we have never seen before,” said Ms Haga.
“You only have to see these crop wild relatives where they grow to know they are hardy plants withstanding drought, pests and disease.”
However, she said the problem was that there were vast holes in gene bank collections.
As part of a plan to rectify this, global leaders are participating in the the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives project, a 10-year program funded by the government of Norway, with partners across the world collecting many of the most important crop wild relative species.
The head of the Australian Grains Genebank, Sally Norton said the Australian genebank was important in identifying indigenous wild relatives of food crops.
“The handfuls of seed that are a result of all our field efforts might not seem much, but these seeds are critical to the global effort underway protecting the future of our food crops,” Dr Norton said.
The Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change project is also ensuring the long-term conservation of crop wild relatives, and facilitating breeding.
“Under this project, Australia is leading important pre-breeding work, crossing wild relatives of sorghum and alfalfa with the domesticated varieties our farmers plant across the globe”, said Luigi Guarino, director of science and programs at the Crop Trust.
Leaders from 18 different nations attended the meetings.