Seeds from crops like these wild bananas from China can be bred to create new climate-adapting varieties.
Seeds from crops like these wild bananas from China can be bred to create new climate-adapting varieties.

The largest effort ever to protect global food supplies against climate change was announced Friday in Rome.

One-fifth of the world's plants are threatened with extinction. It's Cary Fowler's mission to fight back. He's the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a non-profit group based in Rome that works to preserve the world's agriculture heritage.  

He says the key to the survival of domesticated staples like wheat, rice and beans, are traits hidden in their wild relatives. "They are sort of the weedy ancestors of our major crops and they contain a tremendous amount of diversity. These are test plants and they are grown, very often in harsh environments. These are tough plants."

A hand-held satellite device helps a seed collecto
A hand-held satellite device helps a seed collector in Columbia pinpoint wild relatives of stable plants.

Using computer models to direct their search, teams will systematically collect and analyze wild varieties of 23 essential food crops, including rice, beans, potatoes, barley, lentils and chickpeas. The Global Crop Diversity Trust is working in partnership with national research institutes, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Fowler says researchers will cross-breed domesticated varieties with their wild relatives to produce hardy farm-ready plants that can adapt to new, harsher and more demanding conditions.

"They find out more about the qualities of the seed. They fix that information into databases and make it publicly available on the Internet and then plant breeders and in some cases sophisticated farmers can come along and say, 'Ah-ha! We really need this particular trait for our program to improve or to breed a particular crop for a particular area and climate.'" 

Collecting wild plants in Mali.
Collecting wild plants in Mali.

Most scientists agree that the planet is warming. In the face of more frequent and more severe floods, droughts and heavy rainfall that can devastate crops, forecasts are grim.  Irrigated wheat yields worldwide are predicted to decline by nearly one-third by 2080. Maize, a vital crop in South Africa, could drop up to 30 percent within just 20 years.

Fowler says farmers will have to take steps to adapt to a warmer climate much sooner than that.

"If the same corn or maize varieties that are in the field today in southern Africa are still in the field 20 years from now, people there will be suffering a 25 to 30 percent decrease in production because of just the amount of climate change that we can expect in the next 20 years. Imagine what it will be like 50 years from now when virtually all of the growing seasons will be hotter than anything ever experienced in the history of agriculture." 

Local people in Namibia help in the search for pla
Local people in Namibia help in the search for plant diversity. Local names and plant uses can often be obtained from people living in the area.

Fowler expects to complete the cross-breeding experiments in 10 years, the typical time it takes to bring a new plant variety into production.

"This is going to infuse plant breeding programs for most of our major crops with an immense amount of diversity. And what that means is a huge number of new options for farmers and plant breeders to faithfully, sustainably, naturally help their crops be resistant to pest and diseases, to overcome drought and to tackle heat stress. And the cost benefit is simply off the charts."

The Global Crop Diversity Trust project was kicked off with a $50 million grant from Norway. That country also harbors the world's largest repository for seed conservation, a secure vault built into a mountain near the North Pole.