Avocado, Potato and Vanilla Wild Crop Relatives Face Extinction Risks

Food and Agriculture
​Researchers study blight-resistant potatoes bred from wild relatives.

New research presented Tuesday at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Marseille sounded the alarm that wild relatives of some of the world’s most important crops, including potatoes, avocados and vanilla, are at risk of extinction, said The Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN). The study was published in the journal Plants, People, Planet.

It emphasized that relatives of the 224 wild crops native to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have become staples in diets and clothing production across the globe, and that more than one-third of the wild species analyzed were at risk of extinction, mostly due to agriculture and pesticide use, The Guardian reported.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust collects crop wild relatives in Guatemala and Costa Rica.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust collects crop wild relatives in Guatemala and Costa Rica. Global Crop Diversity Trust

Vanilla has the highest risk of extinction, the study found. All eight wild species of vanilla found in Mexico and Central America are listed as endangered or critically endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of threatened plants and animals. Wild cotton is a close second, with 92 percent of species in the region at risk of extinction. More than half of avocado species and almost one-quarter of wild potato species are also at risk of disappearing.

These wild plants are ancestors of some of the oldest cultivated crops in the world, which were first domesticated by the Aztecs, Mayans and other civilizations between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, according to The Guardian.

The wild relatives are “veritable treasure troves of genetic information,” said Jane Smart, director of the IUCN Biodiversity Group, according to FERN. Plant breeders use wild plants to develop varieties of popular crops that are more resilient to heat, drought and pests, which are all accelerated by climate change, said FERN. They’re also used to produce higher-yielding crops, which will be crucial as the world’s human population inches towards 10 billion.

At least 16 of the wild species studied are currently used to develop cultivated crops that are more resilient to the impacts of climate change, said The Guardian. Madagascar is a stark example of what could happen if not enough action on climate change is taken. The country is facing its worst drought in four decades and is on the verge of the world’s first climate-fueled famine.

“The salinity of the soil is changing, and these plants don’t have the capacity to adapt. Temperatures are rising. Because of climate change, pests and diseases will also alter and this can have a massive impact on cultivated plants. We could have shortages of these foods,” Dr. Bárbara Goettsch, lead author of the research, told The Guardian.

Wild relatives of banana, apple, prunes and ginger are listed as threatened on IUCN’s red list, said The Guardian.

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