From: Reuters
Published May 21, 2008 08:10 PM

Crops' wild relatives need better protection: WWF

OSLO (Reuters) - Wild relatives of crops such as wheat, rice and potatoes are "dangerously vulnerable" and areas where they grow need more protection to aid world food supplies, the WWF conservation group said on Thursday.

Wild varieties often have natural characteristics that can be bred into food crops to help them resist everything from new pests or diseases to a changing climate.

"Basic food crops dangerously vulnerable," the WWF said in a headline of a statement about a new WWF map showing that areas in which wild varieties of crops are protected often cover less than five percent of their natural ranges.

"We already have reserves and national parks to protect charismatic species like pandas and tigers, and to preserve outstanding areas of natural beauty," said Liza Higgins-Zogib, Manager of People and Conservation at WWF International.

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"It is now time to offer protection to the equally valuable wild and traditional relatives of the plants that feed the world like rice, wheat and potatoes," she said.

Almost 200 nations are meeting in Bonn, Germany, from May 19-30 for U.N. negotiations on ways to protect the diversity of animals and plants from threats including pollution, climate change and loss of habitats.

Among measures under consideration are to raise the extent of protected areas for vulnerable species. About 12 percent of the world's land area is set aside for wildlife but only some 0.5 percent of the oceans.

For wheat, the WWF said that a deadly strain of black stem rust was a threat to crops from Egypt to Pakistan. And in many regions, protected areas available for natural relatives of wheat and barley were below 5 percent of their natural range.

It said that other crops for which levels of protection for wild relatives fell below five percent included rice in Bangladesh, lentils and peas in North Africa and wild olives in Spain.

It said that the Americas were "slightly better" although protected areas for maize and wild relatives of the potato were below 10 percent of their natural areas.

"Our basic food plants have always been vulnerable to attack from new strains of disease or pests," Higgins-Zogib said.

"The result is often mass hunger and starvation, as anyone who remembers their school history of the Irish Potato Famine will know," she said.

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(Editing by Diana Abdallah)

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