It was in the Middle East, 13 000 years ago – in the “fertile crescent” of land arcing between Egypt and Iran – that humans first domesticated wild plants, selecting and sowing the seeds that best suited their needs. Farming allowed humans to settle and gave rise to civilization.
Now, some ten millennia later, the Middle East could once again have a pivotal role in feeding the world. For its valleys and foothills may well hold the key to future global food security.
Hundreds of generations of farmers in the region have continued to select their crops in order to maintain and improve desirable characteristics such as seed size, productivity and taste. More recently, they were joined by professional plant breeders. In the process of selection, some of the plants’ original features, such as tolerance of harsh conditions, have been lost. But some of these traits can still be found in landraces – locally-adapted and traditional varieties maintained by farmers.
Today, humankind relies on just a few varieties of a handful of crops for nourishment, a vulnerability that places our entire food system at risk. Along with pests and diseases, two other major risk factors currently challenge the world’s capacity to feed itself. One is population growth, which is stretching our food system to the limit in order to produce 60 percent more food by 2050, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The other is advancing climate change, with its higher temperatures and extreme weather events, which threatens food production, especially in regions where population growth will be highest.
In order to secure our food supply in the face of these challenges, it is imperative that we harness the power of landraces to identify and develop our “crops of the future” – varieties that thrive at higher temperatures, on salty soils and on little water. And this is where the Middle East can make a key contribution – by drawing on the treasure of its own, unique plant heritage.
The ancient Middle East’s legacy to the global food supply is enormous. Some of the world’s most important cereal and legume crops, such as wheat, barley, chickpea and lentils, originated there, from their wild ancestors. But the region’s potential to guarantee our future food sources could be even greater in the future, due to those same ancestors and their wild relatives.
These crop wild relatives have continued to evolve over millennia to survive in some of the most challenging conditions on the planet. If these traits can be transferred to our food crops through breeding programmes, they could help provide us with a continuing, resilient and diverse food supply. This is why the Global Crop Diversity Trust, in partnership with the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in the UK, is organizing a global effort of collecting crop wild relatives and making them available for plant breeders.
Crop diversity is widely considered one of the least-recognized but most important resources on earth. But if we are to use crop wild relatives traits to improve our crops, we must act promptly. For today, a combination of factors, such as urbanization, over-grazing, wild harvesting and other stresses endangers the crucial biodiversity of the Middle East, including the Arabian Peninsula.
Only an urgent, concerted effort by the countries of the region to protect and conserve crop diversity both in the wild and on the farm can prevent its disappearance. In practice, this means greatly strengthening local and regional plant genebanks (known as ex situ conservation), setting up nature reserves where crop wild relatives can grow safely (known as in situ conservation) and supporting farmers to use and conserve traditional crop varieties (on farm conservation). These three approaches complement each other in defending our food supply and natural ecosystems.
Scientists can work to identify, collect, conserve, study and use the precious genetic material of crop wild relatives and landraces to climate-proof a new generation of crops for the world and not just for the region. Already one of the world’s top grain importers, the region currently faces a serious food security problem, with increasing water scarcity and a growing population, expected to double between 2000 and 2050.
This explains our participation in a special conference in the United Arab Emirates this month attended by Middle Eastern and North African countries as well as global donors. The meeting, “The Role of Global Plant Genetic Resources for Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture in the Middle East”, is organized by the Dubai-based International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, with the support of Bioversity International.
This event in Dubai will show delegates how developing effective national and regional plans can protect and conserve crop diversity in the Middle East – and in the world at large. They will learn about new approaches, methodologies and best practices.
Conservation of Middle Eastern crop diversity, including crop wild relatives and landraces, can best be achieved in a partnership between the countries of the region, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and Bioversity International, with their wealth of experience in ex situ and in situ conservation.
Such an alliance would ensure that the treasure of the region’s vital crop diversity is made available for future generations in the Middle East and beyond, and that we develop a permanently resilient agricultural system.
But this requires a concerted effort amongst the Middle East countries themselves, together with appropriate financial investment to strengthen the work of the partnership and its member organizations.
In establishing and adequately funding such an alliance, the Middle East can help today to bring in a new era of agriculture – just as it did 13,000 years ago.