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Content archived on 2024-05-27

Novel characterization of crop wild relative and landrace resources as a basis for improved crop breeding

Final Report Summary - PGR SECURE (Novel characterization of crop wild relative and landrace resources as a basis for improved crop breeding)

The PGR Secure action, ‘Novel characterization of crop wild relative and landrace resources as a basis for improved crop breeding’ was undertaken to address the pressing need for greater genetic diversity in European crops to mitigate the potentially devastating impacts of climate change on the agri-environments in which they grow. Extreme weather events resulting from climate change have already resulted in significant economic losses in the EU agricultural sector amounting to billions of euros. There is an urgency to breed more resilient crops and to find ways of speeding up the plant breeding process to provide a buffer against unpredictable climatic changes.
The particular value of crop wild relatives (CWR – plant species closely related to crops) and landraces (LR – locally adapted, genetically diverse crop varieties) for crop improvement has long been recognized. However, their conservation has been largely neglected and their full utilization has been hampered by insufficient knowledge of their diversity; lack of characterized germplasm collections; unavailability of information on potentially useful material and specific traits; difficulties associated with the time taken to breed uniform and stable crops utilizing wild species; and problems of access to plant material due to the political issues of sovereignty and benefit-sharing.
Like other wild species, CWR are threatened by a range of human-induced pressures on their native habitats, including climate change. Historically, many LR varieties have been lost (and continue to be lost) due to replacement with high yielding varieties, changing consumer preferences and expectations, and socio-economic circumstances impacting on LR growers. Without a systematic strategy for conserving CWR and LR diversity, many populations will continue to suffer genetic erosion (loss of unique traits) and may even face extinction. There is an imperative to conserve these resources in situ (i.e. in their native habitats or where they have adapted to local conditions) to allow continuing natural evolution through adaptation to changing environmental conditions. There is also the need for safety ex situ storage in gene banks where they can be characterized and made available for crop improvement programmes.
Actions undertaken by the PGR Secure consortium have resulted in the development of an integrated approach to the conservation of these important resources which combines national and regional conservation strategies. However, conservation is only one part of the story. In order to overcome the obstacles to their effective utilization, the complexity of procedures for breeders obtaining material and the barriers to the use of exotic diversity (i.e. plant material that is more difficult to utilize in conventional breeding programmes) need to be addressed. PGR Secure brought the European PGRFA stakeholder community (genebanks, public research institutes, commercial plant breeding companies, agro-NGOs and governmental bodies) together to better understand their needs and to identify ways to improve the links between conserved CWR and LR resources and their use in crop improvement. The project also developed novel tools and methods to identify traits of interest to plant breeders and to speed up the breeding process, as well as to improve access to CWR and LR conservation and utilization data.
Achieving effective conservation and use of European CWR and LR diversity as a means to promote food and economic security requires coherent, regionally coordinated policy and the appropriate resources for their conservation, characterization and evaluation. The PGR Secure consortium has taken the first steps towards achieving this aim by providing a solid scientific and technological foundation to underpin policy development, the maintenance of food security and to safeguard Europe’s agricultural economy.