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The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), together with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) and six other national and international partners have launched a new programme that aims to boost the conservation and use of the wild relatives of some of the world's key crops.

As part of the project, called 'In situ conservation of crop wild relatives through enhanced management and field application', Armenia, Bolivia, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan will work with the international agencies to determine how to best conserve their rich genetic resources.

The programme will link data and information held in dispersed locations, and create a network for scientists and breeders to exchange knowledge and identify promising traits for improving crop production.

Wild relatives of key crops are useful for breeding purposes — allowing development of new varieties with higher yields, greater disease resistance and higher nutritional values. For instance, scientists are breeding a cross between cultivated broccoli and a wild Sicilian relative. The result is a variety that contains 100 times 'normal' levels of the cancer fighting chemical sulforaphane, an antioxidant that destroys compounds that can damage DNA.

The new programme will determine the conservation status of crop relatives, both in the field and in gene banks, and create national inventories of biodiversity. And it will develop an information access and management system that can be used worldwide.

Procedures for identifying conservation priorities will be also developed and tested. Using them, the participating countries will decide on necessary conservation actions and work with local communities, helping them protect the wild crop relatives and understand their benefits and uses.

The project will build on existing conservation measures. For instance, while Sri Lanka has taken steps to conserve crop relatives, it has no national strategy. Armenia and Uzbekistan have made some effort to conserve wild crop relatives by creating limited protected areas, and Bolivia and Madagascar need to extend surveys to determine where wild crop relatives are found and also to create protected areas.

According to the UNEP and the IPGRI, it is estimated that between 1976 and 1980, wild relatives contributed approximately US$340 million per year in yield and disease resistance to the farm economy of the United States alone.