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Crop wild relatives are wild plant species that are genetically related to cultivated crops. Untended by humans, they continue to evolve in the wild, developing traits – such as drought tolerance or pest resistance – that farmers and breeders can cross with domesticated crops to produce new varieties. They have been used to improve the yields and nutritional quality of crops since the beginnings of agriculture. 

Farmers often plant them alongside domesticated crops to promote natural crossing of beneficial traits. Genes from wild plants have also provided cultivars with resistance against pests and diseases and improved tolerance to abiotic stresses.

In addition to using them in breeding, people also gather species from the wild and cook them. Throughout Africa, for example, people eat wild cowpea species (Vigna spp.), while in Madagascar, wild yams (Dioscorea spp.) are a rich source of carbohydrates. These can also be sold, providing rural households with an additional source of income.

Unfortunately, occurring as they do in untended lands, Crop wild relatives are vulnerable to changes in land use patterns due to growing cities and climate change. Many are at risk of extinction. Their vulnerable position is compounded by the fact that crop wild relatives fall between the agricultural and conservation agendas: agriculture looks at tended lands, conservation does not focus on agricultural resources.

Bioversity International's research approach

Bioversity International supports and enables effective and efficient local, national and global in situ conservation and use strategies of targeted crop wild relatives.  

These strategies are developed in priority sites through the participation and strengthening of local institutions and stakeholders, in the following three areas:

  • determining the conservation status of crop wild relatives and threats
  • management approaches to conserve crop wild relatives in priority sites in the most cost effective manner
  • developing long-term indicators and risk threshold levels which local people can use to monitor crop wild relatives for their own needs and which policymakers can use to define interventions for their conservation and sustainable use.

We also carry out research to identify valuable traits and understand how men and women understand and use crop wild relatives differently.

Research highlights

Crop Wild Relatives: A Manual of in situ Conservation

Crop Wild Relatives: A Manual of In situ Conservation captures the important experiences of countries participating in this work - Armenia, Bolivia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan - and provides practical, relevant information and guidance for the scaling-up of actions targeting CWR conservation around the world.

 Download the book

Safeguarding and using crop wild relatives for food security and climate change adaptation

Bioversity International works with partners to enhance scientific capacities in the South African Development Community to conserve crop wild relatives and identify useful potential traits.

We are also preparing National Strategic Action Plans on the conservation of priority crop wild relatives in partner countries, and promoting them to policymakers. Crop wild relatives are often not taken into account in environmental policy planning processes and their conservation not given high priority in management plans for protected areas. 

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