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From 1974 onwards, Bioversity International* supported a series of expeditions worldwide. The objective was to systematically collect and conserve traditional varieties and landraces cultivated by farmers and their wild relatives which were being lost from fields and natural habitats.

Collectors from national and international institutions collected over 225,000 plant samples during more than 500 collecting expeditions to most countries of the world. Samples of approximately 4300 different species were collected, with a focus however on landraces and crop wild relatives (CWR) of major crops. The most collected genera were Oryza, Zea, Phaseolus and Sorghum with more than 10,000 samples each, followed by Triticum, Vigna, Solanum, Ipomoea and Pennisetum with more than 5000 samples. This wealth of landraces and CWR was distributed to over 500 genebanks for conservation.

During expeditions, collectors make notes and sketches in field books and collecting forms about the plant and its context. They note the identification of the plant and its growing environment. And they record valuable knowledge shared by farmers about traits that they value in the plants, and the ways they cultivate, harvest and process them.

Meticulous observations, personal remarks, photos and hand-drawn sketches combined with detailed maps, observations shared by farmers, and methods used for collecting samples can illuminate phenomena such as genetic erosion.

The original information recorded by the collectors is a treasure trove of fascinating data. It also contains information that can help us understand better the consequences of climate change and people’s changing agricultural practices.

Studying these historical data allows us to prioritize locations where it would be interesting to re-sample old collecting sites in order to analyze the evolution of diversity over time.

Bioversity International returned recently to sites in Jordan where barley wild relatives and landraces were sampled 30 years ago to assess changes in the sites and in the genetic diversity of the populations.