Introduction

Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are a subset of biodiversity and an essential basis for food security and human welfare. Protection of genetic resources in situ, safeguarding those most threatened by genetic erosion ex situ, and access to a broad genetic variation are the cornerstones of management, utilisation and deployment of genetic variation in agricultural production systems. Genetic variation of cultivated plants has been and is being shaped by agriculture; breeding pools as sources of modern cultivars, conservation and amateur varieties or preservation seed mixtures would not survive without active management by conservationists, breeders, farmers and amateurs. They develop and maintain genetic variation according to the conditions set by the agricultural policy, regional growing conditions, and the specific needs, preference and cultural background of consumers.

Landraces are traditionally grown forms distinct from modern crop varieties. Their traits can most easily be introgressed into breeding pools. Equally crop wild relatives (CWR) are a source of novel genetic variation and are increasingly used for crop improvement through breeding since many decades. Despite their well-known economic importance for agriculture and horticulture, their conservation has not been systematically addressed by genebank curators or by nature conservationists. Both crop landraces and wild relatives are increasingly threatened with erosion or extinction by unsustainable agro-environmental management and ecosystem instability, not to mention the poorly predicted but likely devastating impact of global climate change.

This project focuses on the development of conservation strategies for both crop wild relatives that occur in natural or semi-natural habitats and landraces that are often found in traditional farming systems, whose agricultural importance is well known. The development of in situ conservation programmes and actions for the habitats of the CWR have traditionally fallen into the domain of environmental policy and their agencies or the forestry where the in situ management approach ranks higher than the ex situ conservation. There are however strong arguments for integrated European conservation programmes linking nature conservation as well as forestry with the agricultural interest in the wild relatives of crops. Concepts and methodologies for CWR and landrace conservation and use have been developed by the PGR Forum project (EC Framework 5 Programme for Research, Key action 2.2.3 Assessing and conserving biodiversity) co-ordinated by the University of Birmingham and the ECPGR In Situ and On-farm Conservation Network. The concepts, such as the genetic reserve conservation technique and on-farm management approaches, now need to be transferred into the practice.