"What was interesting is that you could see that the geography was very important," says Andy Jarvis, senior scientist at Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, also in Cali. "Wild peanuts are the worst hit because they have long distances they would need to migrate in order to track their climate [due to the fact they are] on flat lowlands."
This is not just bad news for wild peanuts and potatoes, but also for their domesticated brethren. From their many sizes and colors (vibrantly demonstrated by the potatoes on offer at the Bolivian market pictured above) along with genes that resist drought, wild relatives represent a genetic storehouse of potentially useful traits, such as the genes that allowed potatoes to recover from the blight that precipitated the Irish potato famine. "Wild species typically have more resistance to pests," Jarvis notes. "Wild relatives are becoming more and more useful for plant breeding," especially given advanced genetic techniques. For example, wild cousins provided the genetic basis for boosting the calcium content of potatoes.
In this study, the researchers probed how Arachis (peanuts), Solanum (potatoes) and Vigna (cowpeas, a nutritious legume common in Africa) fared under various climate scenarios that took into consideration the plants ability to migrate. Peanut and potato species unable to migrate suffered drastic reductions in number as well as in the amount of land available to them. In fact, 80 percent of all three species—including those able to migrate completely and partially—experienced range reductions, even Vigna, which was least impacted because it is the most widespread.
Other studies have found that plants prove more resilient in the face of climate change than anticipated, so further field experiments will be needed to determine if this gloomy prognosis is correct. But Jarvis says it would be prudent to catalogue and store the genetic materials of various wild relatives of important crops—and set up suitable protected reserves—before climate change forces them to pack up and move 300 kilometers to find a suitably hospitable region again. "The gene banks are drastically underrepresenting wild relatives," he warns. "Species ranges are highly likely to change and therefore you need to account for that; that needs to be taken into account in conservation plans."