While the big beasts, from elephants to giant pandas, grab the headlines, scientists warn that the wild species that underpin the entire human food system are just as endangered but receive almost no attention.
Today, 75% of the world’s food comes from just a dozen crops and five animal species, leaving supplies very vulnerable to pests or disease that can sweep through large areas of monocultures. Add in the falling yields expected from climate change, and the world’s growing global population faces a food problem.
The answer is preserving the wild relatives of crops, which over time have evolved solutions to environmental challenges. There are tens of thousands of wild or rarely cultivated species that could provide a richly varied range of nutritious foods, resistant to disease and tolerant of the changing environment – if they survive.
For example, researchers in Ethiopia have found two varieties of durum wheat that produce excellent yields even in dry areas. In South America, a tough, nutritious variety of quinoa, resilient to future diseases or extreme weather, is now being cultivated.
But therse are rare examples of harnessing nature’s genetic bounty. A fifth of wild potatoes are on track to go extinct by 2050. Almost 70% of chocolate’s key ingredient is grown from a single species in Ghana and Ivory Coast, but the cacao trees may be unable to survive likely temperature rises. In coffee’s birthplace in Ethiopia, wild relatives are being lost as half the current growing areas look likely to succumb to warming.
Protecting biodiversity could also tackle widespread nutrition problems. The gac, a fiery red fruit from Vietnam, and the orange-fleshed Asupina banana both have extremely high levels of beta-carotene and could help the millions of people suffering vitamin A.