CIAT’s Colin Khoury has received the 2016 Hugo de Vries Award for his landmark doctoral thesis on changing human diets and the importance of wild plants to global food security.

The annual award is a joint initiative of the Royal Botanical Society of the Netherlands and the Hugo de Vries Foundation. It recognises important research related to botany conducted at a Dutch university. Khoury undertook the work while a PhD student at Wageningen University in The Netherlands, and a visiting researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

His research found that over the past 50 years, human diets have become ever more similar as commodity crops like wheat, rice, maize and soy make up an increasing proportion of what we eat. This, he argued, is dangerous because dependence on a limited number of plants means our food supply is overexposed to the risk of crop failure. More frequent droughts, floods and outbreaks of plant pests and diseases as a result of climate change are likely to exacerbate this risk.

“It’s been really exciting, encouraging and humbling to be recognised for my work to highlight the importance of crop diversity, and to expose the conservation gaps. As with any scientific endeavour, it’s quite clear that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants – including Dr Hugo de Vries himself.” Colin Khoury

International Center for Tropical Agriculture and US Department of Agriculture

In search of possible solutions, Khoury went on to investigate the importance of crop wild relatives (CWRs) – the distant, unfarmed cousins of food crops – as sources of useful “genetic diversity”. Some CWRs contain genes responsible for heat tolerance or pest resistance, and have long been used by plant breeders to improve the resilience of staple crops. Drawing up a shortlist of some the most important CWRs for breeding efforts, Khoury then studied the extent to which these are conserved in the world’s gene banks and how accessible they are to scientists.

His investigation revealed that while CWRs are vital for crop breeders, there are large gaps in collections, plus a slew of issues that prevent the free and easy sharing of samples between scientists and research institutions.

When the chapter on the globalization of diets was published in 2014, it received worldwide media attention. Some of Khoury’s findings were also presented to policy advisers in support of proposed changes to the United Nations’ International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Treaty provides the framework for the conservation of crops and their wild relatives, and the sharing of gene bank collections between countries.

“It’s been really exciting, encouraging and humbling to be recognized for my work to highlight the importance of crop diversity, and to expose the conservation gaps,” said Khoury, following the award ceremony in Lunteren, the Netherlands, today. “As with any scientific endeavor, it’s quite clear that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants – including Dr Hugo de Vries himself.”

De Vries (1848-1935) was a Dutch botanist, and widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of genetics.

“This is great news for Colin and for the vital issues of crop conservation and crop improvement. His work is helping to propel these subjects to the forefront of international policy discussions on food security. We’re very grateful to the Hugo de Vries Foundation and the Royal Botanical Society of the Netherlands for recognising this important work.”

Ruben G. Echeverría

Director-General, International Center for Tropical Agriculture

Khoury thanked scientists from CIAT’s Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area, among a host of others who collaborated on the work. He also stressed the need for more investment in the world’s gene banks – from those like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that holds frozen copies of important seeds as a safety backup, to the CIAT gene bank, where scientists conserve and study living plant collections in an effort to make food crops more resilient.

“The conservation and use of plant genetic resources is essential if we are going to develop robust responses to the challenges facing our food supply,” he continued. “Gene banks are indispensable to that effort.”

CIAT’s Director-General Ruben Echeverría said: “This is great news for Colin and for the vital issues of crop conservation and crop improvement. His work is helping to propel these subjects to the forefront of international policy discussions on food security. We’re very grateful to the Hugo de Vries Foundation and the Royal Botanical Society of the Netherlands for recognising this important work.”

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Khoury’s thesis supervisors were Paul Struik of Wageningen University and Andy Jarvis of CIAT. Wageningen University has assigned Khoury’s thesis “cum laude” status, the highest qualification possible. 

Khoury currently works jointly for CIAT and the United States Department of Agriculture, where he is focusing on conservation priorities for crop wild relatives. Click to read his full doctoral thesis, The conservation and use of crop genetic resources for food security, or the summary.

The research was supported by the Government of Norway as part of its initiative, Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives. This is managed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust with the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and implemented in partnership with national and international genebanks and plant breeding institutes around the world.

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