The problem of preserving the wild relatives of crop species as a vital gene bank was highlighted in the European Parliament at a special hearing of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs committee.

The hearing in Brussels was organised by committee member Anthea McIntyre, Conservative MEP for the West Midlands, and featured a key note address by Dr. Nigel Maxted, senior lecturer at Birmingham University and an expert in conservation techniques.

He highlighted the huge value of crop wild relatives (CWRs) as a source of genetic improvement through cross-breeding for traits such as pest-resistance and yield-improvement in existing crop species.

But he said climate change and habitat loss had left wild relatives increasingly under threat - and they were being poorly conserved. Nearly half of the hotspots where valuable CWRs were endangered were in Europe, he said, and although conservation responses had been formulated they were rarely implemented.

Dr Maxted stressed: "If we want to use CWRs in the future we have to conserve them now.

"We need a full programme of diversity conservation, integrated at local, national, international and global level."

Miss McIntyre, whose successful parliamentary report on Agricultural Technology last year highlighted the importance of genetic diversity, said the hearing had exceeded all her expectations.

She said:  "There is a very direct link between food security and bio-diversity.

"I wonder whether the stewardship section of the Common Agricultural Policy should be adapted specifically to encourage the conservativation of CWRs. This seems like a positive way to  incentivise farmers to make a difference."

Other speakers included Susanne Barth, research associate at Trinity College, Dublin, and Nicolas Roux, genetic resources conservationist at Biodiversity International.

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