By Chris Arsenault
ROME, Jan 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Climate change threatens the genetic diversity of the world's food supply, and saving crops and animals at risk will be crucial for preserving yields and adapting to wild weather patterns, a U.N. policy paper said on Monday.
Certain wild crops - varieties not often cultivated by today's farmers - could prove more resilient to a warming planet than some popular crop breeds, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said.
But these wild strains are among those most threatened by climate change.
Ensuring food security and protecting at-risk species as the climate changes is one of "the most daunting challenges facing humankind", the paper said.
Between 16 and 22 percent of wild crop species may be in danger of extinction within the next 50 years, said the FAO paper. They include 61 percent of peanut species, 12 percent of potato species and 8 percent of cowpea species.
"In a warmer world with harsher, more variable weather, plants and animals raised for food will need to have the biological capacity to adapt more quickly than ever before," FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo said in a statement.
"Preventing further losses of agricultural genetic resources and diverting more attention to studying them and their potential will boost humankind's ability to adapt to climate change."
To improve the resilience of food systems, the paper recommends strengthening gene banks to include crops now considered "minor", a review of breeding practices, the creation of community seed banks, and improving seed exchanges between farmers in different regions.
Seeds and genetic material from crops under threat should be preserved in labs when they are not safe in the wild, said the paper.
World food production will need to rise by an estimated 60 percent by 2050 to feed a growing population, the FAO said, and climate change will make boosting yields tougher in many regions.
Cropping areas are set to shrink in sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, India and northern Australia, while warming temperatures will open new regions to agriculture in the northern United States, Canada and much of Europe.
Farming systems - and crops themselves - will need adapt to cope in these new environments, the paper said.
Scientists worry that certain crop varieties and animal breeds could be abandoned by farmers and livestock keepers in the face of climate change without steps to conserve them.
Breeders will need to identify genetic resources with suitable traits for developing varieties that can thrive in extreme climatic conditions, the paper said.
(Reporting By Chris Arsenault; editing by Megan Rowling)