The wild relatives of major vegetables, needed for climate resilience, are in danger

Growing up in the wild makes plants tough. Wild plants evolve to survive the whims of nature and thrive in difficult conditions, including extreme climate conditions, poor soils, and pests and disease. Their better-known descendants—the domesticated plants that are critical to a healthy diet—are often not nearly as hardy. The genes that make crop wild relatives robust have the potential to make their cultivated cousins—our food plants—better prepared for a harsh climate future. But a series of new research papers show these critical plants are imperiled.

"The wild relatives of crops are one of the key tools used to breed crops adapted to hotter, colder, drier, wetter, saltier and other difficult conditions," said Colin Khoury, a scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, or CIAT. "But they are impacted by habitat destruction, over-harvesting, climate change, pollution, invasive species, and more. Some of them are sure to disappear from their natural habitats without urgent action."

Khoury and colleagues' latest focus has been on the wild relatives of vegetables, including chili peppers, lettuce, and carrots. Their most recent publication was on the distribution, conservation status and stress tolerance of wild cucurbits, or the gourd family, which includes zucchini, pumpkins, and squash. The findings were published online Dec. 10 in Plants People Planet.

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