Crop wild relative assessment

I came across this article today: https://www.npr.org/2020/12/16/946848442/distant-cousins-of-food-crops-deserve-respect-and-protection

About this study:
https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/12/09/2007029117

tl;dr, A team of researchers (mostly from the USDA) published an article about the importance and conservation status of North American plants termed “crop wild relatives” (CWR), which are wild species in the same genera as various cultivated food plants.

This is the first time I’ve encountered CWR as a term, and I was curious about the approach. The emphasis on this group appears to be a part of the pragmatic approach to conservation, where conservation status and effort is assigned with economic benefit in mind. Their argument is that CWRs contain a gene bank of “useful” traits that have been, and could be, interbred with cultivars to gain agricultural benefit.

I’ve heard the pragmatic approach criticized by purists, and I understand a bit from both sides, that pragmatists are looking to economic arguments to generate economic interest in conservation, and purists would rather change the conversation toward the intrinsic benefits of wild ecosystems, rather than economic benefits. I’m grateful for anything the pragmatic approach has done for conservation, but also feel like the focus on CWRs as a category ignores all of the other threatened or endangered species without any (known) crop value.

If you know anything about this topic, let me know if I’m on the right track on this analysis, or if there are parts of the conversation that I’m missing.

Also, they used GBIF as one of their sources for GIS data, which means that you and I (iNatters) probably contributed data to this study.

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I have mixed feelings about the prioritization of CWR species.

I definitely wish we weren’t so focused on charismatic species (though they are great marketing). That’s another discussion though.

On the other hand, call me a cynic, but ultimately ALL conservation efforts are for our benefit. Nature, and life in general, will proceed with or without us. We may cause the deaths of the vast majority of species on the planet, including ourselves, and life would go on. As much as I, and most humans, cherish life and the natural world, from a certain standpoint there is no inherent value to life on Earth continuing to look as it currently does. Except, of course, that from our emotional perspective it would lose its beauty, from a pragmatic perspective we would lose a great deal of potential knowledge and useful resources, and from a survival perspective we may change the climate so drastically as to doom our species to extinction.

I choose to embrace my humanity and my emotions, and pursue a moral code that values joyous and healthy human life, as well as the well-being of thinking beings, environmental stability, and of the Earth as a whole.

That does mean I think it’s valid to try to preserve crop diversity. If it will reduce human hunger, and thus human suffering, I’m all for it. While I do want to balance this with spending resources on other species, it’s a real grey area. I think we here can mostly all agree, at least, that we ought to be spending much, much more money attention and resources than we currently do for conservation of nature.

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As a gardener and someone who dabbles in plant/crop breeding, I think it’s a great idea. For me, the take away wasn’t that CWR protection might take precedence over non-crop species. What I took from the blurb was that a repository of some kind might be created to house these potential crop species (or at least their genetics). The PNAS article mentions ‘ex situ conservation’ in addition to protection in the native habitat. It seems like both crop and non-crop species could both be protected equally and, perhaps in some cases, protecting one might protect the other.

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This is a point I make all the time when I give presentations, talks, and interviews on conservation.

But then, the life of past epochs also had its beauty. Imagine a Carboniferous forest, with tree horsetails, tree clubmosses, tree ferns, and seed ferns.

As to crop wild relatives, let’s not stop with North America. The other continents also have crop wild relatives worth keeping.

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