Depending on your family dynamics, the term "wild relatives'' might bring to mind vociferous in-laws or unpredictable cousins — any relation who reliably keeps the holidays from getting boring. Did you know that crops have wild relatives, too? They are the weedy distant relations of the plants we grow for food, fuel and fiber — and they have a crucial role to play in global food security.
Since the dawn of agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago, our ancestors have been observing, selecting and cross-breeding our crops' ancestors, resulting in the domesticated versions we rely on today. Step by step, season by season, skilled farmers and breeders stewarded invaluable genetic resources to secure what they needed to survive — meaning that the origin of all domesticated plants is, at some point in its history, wild.
How can that wild past provide us with a more prosperous future?
Where the Wild Things Grow
It's all in the genes.
"These wild relatives of crops have been evolving on Earth for millions of years, and they have witnessed so many different climates," one researcher tells NPR. "The traits that help them adapt and survive in these conditions are stored in their DNA. We have this diversity and it can be a tool to help us face the future."
Wild organisms that have evolved to survive difficult conditions such as drought, heat, flood and poor soils carry genetic traits that can help us develop more resilient food crops.
But that diversity is at risk. Wild spaces are increasingly threatened by deforestation, destructive industrial-style agriculture practices, GMO contamination and climate change. The organisms that live there are disappearing. That's why scientists, nonprofits and international agencies are working together to gather and save seeds, preserving what would otherwise be lost.
One such effort, the Crop Trust's Wild Relatives Project, has already borne fruit.
Diverse traits, resilient crops
Drought resilience is one of agriculture's most sought-after traits, particularly in light of our warming climate. To meet this need, the Crop Trust's Wild Relatives Project is turning to the genetic bounty held in wild plants to create new varieties of alfalfa, finger millet, rice, potatoes and more — all able to withstand the effects of climate change.
Their first success is Jabal wheat, a drought-tolerant durum wheat that was announced in 2022. Jabal wheat was created by cross-breeding commercial durum wheat (the kind used to make pasta, couscous and bulgur) with wild goatgrass, a distant relative. Jabal wheat has been approved for cultivation in Morocco, where it is welcomed by farmers experiencing the worst drought in 30 years.
Collaboration with farmers is crucial to Jabal wheat's success. "A key part of this project is to involve farmers,” said Filippo Bassi, a senior scientist and collaborator on the development of Jabal wheat. “We look to their knowledge and their capacity to identify the best traits in each variety, so that we can deliver something that actually fits into their farming system and improves their lives."
Another non-GMO success story with a wild connection is a non-GMO potato with late blight resistance. Late blight is a severe fungal infection that can wipe out potato crops. In the 1840s, late blight caused famines that killed more than a million people in Ireland alone. Last year, researchers announced a new potato variety that can resist late blight while reducing the need for agricultural inputs. The potato, known as CIP-Matilde, was developed by crossing a commercially-grown potato with a wild relative.
The "long-term issues" of GMOs
CIP-Matilde's potential to fight late blight without costly inputs such as pesticides is a crucial trait for rural and subsistence farmers who cannot afford them. It also highlights key differences between GMO and non-GMO solutions. For example, J.R. Simplot's GMO potatoes also resist late blight, but the patents that protect GMOs raise costs for farmers while preventing them from saving seed potatoes for the following year. A GMO wheat variety engineered for drought tolerance can also withstand the application of weedkiller — a trait that will likely cause a spike in chemical applications where it is adopted.
In an article celebrating the blight-resistant, non-GMO potato, agricultural journalist Richard Halleron added a note of caution: "I am fast coming to the conclusion that [genetic modification] and all other related sciences could be creating long-term issues for humanity – many, or all of which, could prove very difficult to step back from."
The non-GMO solutions outlined here were arrived at through shared resources and collaboration. They are shaped by holistic thinking, centering the knowledge and experience of farmers and breeders. At the Non-GMO Project, we'll choose an equitable food system over a corporate monopoly every time.