Skip to main content

Crop wild relatives are wild plant species that are genetically related to cultivated crops. Untended by humans, they continue to evolve in the wild, developing traits – such as drought tolerance or pest resistance – that farmers and breeders can cross with domesticated crops to produce new varieties. They have been used to improve the yields and nutritional quality of crops since the beginnings of agriculture. 

Farmers often plant them alongside domesticated crops to promote natural crossing of beneficial traits. Genes from wild plants have also provided cultivars with resistance against pests and diseases and improved tolerance to abiotic stresses.

In addition to using them in breeding, people also gather species from the wild and cook them. Throughout Africa, for example, people eat wild cowpea species (Vigna spp.), while in Madagascar, wild yams (Dioscorea spp.) are a rich source of carbohydrates. These can also be sold, providing rural households with an additional source of income.

Unfortunately, occurring as they do in untended lands, Crop wild relatives are vulnerable to changes in land use patterns due to growing cities and climate change. Many are at risk of extinction. Their vulnerable position is compounded by the fact that crop wild relatives fall between the agricultural and conservation agendas: agriculture looks at tended lands, conservation does not focus on agricultural resources.


Bioversity International's research approach

Bioversity International supports and enables effective and efficient local, national and global in situ conservation and use strategies of targeted crop wild relatives.  

These strategies are developed in priority sites through the participation and strengthening of local institutions and stakeholders, in the following three areas:

  • Determining the conservation status of crop wild relatives and threats
  • Management approaches to conserve crop wild relatives in priority sites in the most cost effective manner
  • Developing long-term indicators and risk threshold levels which local people can use to monitor crop wild relatives for their own needs and which policymakers can use to define interventions for their conservation and sustainable use.

We also carry out research to identify valuable traits and understand how men and women understand and use crop wild relatives differently.


Research highlights

Safeguarding and using crop wild relatives for food security and climate change adaptation

A recent project has seen the understanding of crop wild relatives improved across the South African Development Community (SADC) and especially in the partner countries of Mauritius, South Africa and Zambia.

The project, co-funded by the European Union and implemented through ACP-EU Co-operation Programme in Science and Technology, had two main aims. First, to develop scientific expertise in SADC to conserve crop wild relatives and identify traits potentially useful to enable agriculture to adapt to climate change. Secondly, to ensure that the conservation of crop wild relatives was incorporated into National Strategic Action Plans.

Together, these would enhance the link between conservation and use of crop wild relatives in the three partner countries and within the SADC region, as a means of underpinning regional food security and mitigating the predicted adverse impact of climate change.

Find out more

Interactive Toolkit for Crop Wild Relative Conservation Planning

An interactive toolkit, developed by Bioversity International and the University of Birmingham, guides national programmes on planning the conservation of crop wild relatives as this valuable source of diversity is being threatened with extinction.

A first of its kind, this toolkit covers all the steps involved in conservation planning of crop wild relatives, and facilitates systematic thinking on the processes required for countries, organizations and projects to develop a strategy. Produced with crop wild relatives in mind, this toolkit can also be applied to other categories of plant and animal genetic resources such as crop landraces or animal breeds.

Read more

Crop Wild Relatives: A Manual of in situ Conservation

Crop Wild Relatives: A Manual of In situ Conservation captures the important experiences of countries participating in this work - Armenia, Bolivia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan - and provides practical, relevant information and guidance for the scaling-up of actions targeting CWR conservation around the world.

 Download the book


University of Birmingham

The Faculty of Agriculture, University of Mauritius (UoM), Reduit

The Directorate Genetic Resources, Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), Pretoria, South Africa

Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI), Lusaka, Zambia


Ehsan Dulloo


Related news

Crop wild relatives of onion in Italy. Credit: Bioversity International/A. Lane

Conserving diversity: Interactive Toolkit for Crop Wild Relative Conservation Planning

An interactive toolkit, developed by Bioversity International and the University of Birmingham, guides national programmes on planning the...

Read more

Mama Mamrhasi from Hobeni Village, South Africa, displays wild spinach (known as 'imifino' in Xhosa, one of the official languages of South Africa) that she has collected from her home garden. Credit: Katie Tavenner

Boosting the conservation of crop wild relatives in Southern Africa

Bioversity International’s South African Development Community Crop Wild Relatives Project is drawing to a close with a final dissemination meeting...

Read more

Crop wild relatives of onion in Italy. Credit: Bioversity International/A.Lane

Capturing crop wild relative and landrace diversity

New book by CABI, with contributions from Bioversity International, reviews all aspects of use and conservation of crop wild relative and landrace...

Read more

Crop wild relatives – are they going to end up like the dodo?

Many crop wild relatives are at risk of extinction. How to safeguard and use them was the theme of a side event held during the Plant Treaty Governing...

Read more

Musa borneensis is a wild species of banana first described by the Italian botanist Odoardo Beccari when he visited Sarawak on the island of Borneo between 1865 and 1868. Credit: Bioversity International/J.Sardos. Courtesy of Musarama

Crop wild relatives and climate change

With contributions from Bioversity International scientists, a new book published by Wiley-Blackwell explores the contribution of crop wild relatives...

Read more