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 September 08, 2014
Middle East wars could put world's food security at risk

 Millions of people could in future face starvation as an indirect result of the violent turmoil in the Middle East which has the highest concentration of wild crop plants needed to produce new food varieties, scientists said.

Civil wars raging in Syria and Iraq threaten future food resources because of the crucial role the region plays as the home of the wild plants continually needed to improve the genetic quality of domesticated crops.

The region, part of the Fertile Crescent, an ancient area of fertile soil and important rivers stretching in an arc from the Nile to the Tigris and Euphrates, and encompassing Iraq, Syria and the Lebanon, has the greatest diversity of "wild crop relatives" in the world. Yet many of these wild plants are endangered as a result of the civil strife and disorder, said Nigel Maxted, of the University of Birmingham's School of Biosciences.

"The Middle East is where the basis of our future food security is located ... Wheat is not a native UK species. It was brought from the Fertile Crescent centuries ago," Dr Maxted said.

"If we're trying to get food security in Europe, the issue is not conserving species that are currently found in Europe, but conserving species that are found in the Fertile Crescent, which is where the crops that we consume every day generally come from."

Experts from Birmingham University are involved in a new initiative by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to help conserve the wild relatives of crop plants in the countries where they are found, especially in conflict zones.

"You can have a range of seeds, but the best thing is to conserve them where they are found, because then you can maximise the range of genetic diversity. In the end, the ideal thing would be for the UN to set up a network of protected areas... We need the FAO to take the lead and help these countries to save the world," Dr Maxted added.

The team is currently negotiating with governments in the Fertile Crescent to implement conservation schemes in biodiversity "hotspots". Fewer than one in 10 wild crop species are preserved in seed banks, said Dr Maxted. The largest collection of seeds in the Fertile Crescent was in Syria and believed to be under the control of rebel forces.

The human population is set to expand from the 7.26 billion to 9.6 billion by 2050 and feeding the extra people will require further improvements in crop yields helped by the introduction of genes from wild plants resistant to drought, pests and other potential factors limiting food production, he added.

"If we're trying to feed that ever increasing human population, we can categorically say that several million people would die as a result of these species not being present," Dr Maxted said.

"The issue with crops is they're continually being developed to overcome changing pests and diseases. If we don't have access to the resistance in the wild species, then we can't cross them with the crop, and our crops will produce less yield. More people, more starvation," he added.

Dr Maxted, who will present his latest findings today at the British Science Festival in Birmingham, said the first comprehensive survey of crops and their wild relatives lists 173 crops and their 1,667 most important wild relatives, together with their traits, many of which are found in the conflict zone of the Middle East.

The two sites with the richest concentrations of wild crop relatives anywhere in the world lie within the borders of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. The inventory indicates that, globally, about 21 per cent of wild crop relatives are threatened with extinction.