Rising temperatures have impacted various crops around the world, raising concerns about food insecurity and famines in some regions. Though many studies have largely focused on the big cereal crops, a new study warns that climate change also threatens the wild versions of humanity’s most commonly consumed cultivated vegetables. Most of these wild relatives aren’t stored in gene banks, leaving cultivated veggies at risk of decimation by environmental changes.
Though subtle, the rising temperatures behind climate change have had noticeable impacts on many crops. Only small changes in a region’s climate can have a major effect on its various agricultural efforts and even less noticeable, yet no less concerning, effects on things like wild mushrooms and microorganisms.
The vegetables produced by farmers and sold to consumers are called cultivated vegetables — they’re versions of wild vegetables deliberately bred for certain attributes, such as large size, appealing flavors and appearances, suitability for certain growing regions and soil types, and more. People don’t typically eat the wild versions of these vegetables, but they remain vital for producing new types of cultivated counterparts.
New research from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) warns that many poorly preserved wild plant species are at risk of going extinct due to changing climates, among other things. If the plant hasn’t been carefully preserved in a gene bank, its extinction means it would be lost forever, reducing the options humans have for cultivating new types of vegetables.
As examples, the researchers note that 95-percent of wild chile peppers aren’t preserved in any gene bank in the world — if one of those plants goes extinct from climate change, its genes will no longer be available to produce hardier, more resilient cultivated versions of the same pepper. Likewise, around 65-percent of wild pumpkins are also missing from gene banks.
The researchers note that these wild vegetables have received less attention and conservation than cereal commodity crops, but that’s a problem — humanity depends on these vegetables for our health. In addition to protecting the crops in their natural habitats, the researchers are also calling for efforts to conserve these vital plants in gene banks.