Crop Wild Relatives: Our Challenges, Our Future, Our Food Security

By Jade Phillips, University of Birmingham


I am standing on a golden sandy beach on the south coast of Cyprus.  There are a few cars on the shore, locals relaxing in the spring sunshine and the now all too commonplace plastic bottle stuck in the sand.  The sea is perfectly flat and that tropical blue colour you get in shallow, clear water.  There are a few miniature sand dunes, more like oversized mole hills, as you look inland from the sea, dotted with hardy shrub species.  As much as the sky beckons me to begin cloud gazing and the sun tempts me into the water I am not here to soak up the sun’s rays.  My colleagues and I are here to search for wheat.  Wild wheat.  Well, Aegilops bicornis (Forssk.) Jaub. & Spach, which is not actually wheat at all, at least not the sort we have in our bread.  It is a wild relative- a species that has an indirect use derived from its relatively close genetic relationship to a crop (Maxted et al., 2006).  

Aegilops  bicornis is a secondary relative of the cultivated wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) (Vincent et al., 2013) we see in our fields.  This means that the wild species can be easily crossed with the cultivated wheat to create hybrids that contain the desired traits from both individuals.  This population is particularly important due to its beach side location meaning that the population is adapted to very dry, salty conditions.  The kinds of conditions that are becoming more and more common in our farmer’s fields as agriculture intensifies, water resources are strained and the climate changes.  

Looking eastward from Cyprus you reach the coasts of Lebanon and Syria, two countries with a broad diversity of crop wild relatives.  This region, along with Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Iran is where western agriculture is said to have originated about 10,000 years ago and is known as the Fertile Crescent (see  Zohary & Hopf (2000) for further information on origin of agriculture).  Here we can find a broad diversity of wild progenitors of modern agricultural species including wild wheat, wild barley, wild oat, wild forage species (for our cattle) and wild fruit such as fig and pomegranate.  For other major cultivated species, the origins tend to be found in different hotspots or Vavilov centres of diversity (Figure 1).  These eight centres are the areas where our cultivated plants are said to have originated.  This includes the previously mentioned Fertile Crescent as well as centres from South America (potato, tomato) to India (rice, chickpea, orange).  The Fertile Crescent is also a primary centre of diversity for Aegilops (Harlan, 1992 and van Slageren, 1994).

This stretch of beach in Cyprus is one of only six localities (Tsintides et al., 2007) on the island where this species of Aegilops can be found.  One of the others is a small population located between two hotel complexes.  The populations are declining and the species has been red listed as vulnerable (B1ab(iii,v)+2ab(iii,v)) in Cyprus (Tsintides et al., 2007). It is threatened from habitat loss due to increasing development to meet the need of tourists as well as threats from invasive species (Tsintides et al., 2007) and climate change.  The populations mentioned are not actively protected.  We can collect seeds and freeze them but we also need to protect the longevity of the populations and their habitat by way of in situ, protected area, conservation.  These complementary actions are the only effective means of ensuring our future food security against an increasing array of often unpredictable natural and manmade disturbances.

Although I have only mentioned one species, this situation is seen throughout the world.  Efforts are already underway to prioritise and locate these important populations and countries and regions are beginning to create strategies to help protect such taxa (for example see: Cyprus (Phillips et al., 2013); Finland (Fitzgerald, 2013); Norway (Phillips et al., in prep); Spain (Rubio Teso et al., 2012); UK (Fielder et al., 2015, in prep); USA (Khoury et al., 2013)).  We should not leave it to chance to decide if the beach population of Aegilops will still be there in 10 years time.  We must continue to educate people on the importance of such crop wild relatives so we can easily find these species, prioritise them and protect them, if we want to meet the challenges of our future food security.  


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Zohary, D. & Hopf, M. 2000. Domestication of Plants in the Old Worlds. 3rd edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Photos of Student Fieldwork