Domesticated crops such as potatoes and peanuts originated from wild plants, and the varieties we are familiar with today are the result of breeding by farmers to select the best properties relating to taste, appearance and yield.
But in times of crisis, such as drought, pests or even when crops are threatened by the effects of climate change, farmers tend to dip back into the wild gene pool to find traits that will allow them to survive.
But a study conducted by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) and presented this week at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Rome, Italy, found that as many as 61 percent of the 51 wild peanut species analysed and 12 percent of the 108 wild potato species analysed could become extinct as the result of climate change in the next 50 years.
Moreover, the surviving species would be confined to smaller areas, which would reduce their survival capacity.
The study, conducted on South American and African crops, also looked at cowpeas. While only two of the 48 species were found to be under threat, the authors found that the survivors would be threatened as they would be forced out of the areas where they currently grow.
"Our results would indicate that the survival of many species of crop wild relatives, not just wild potato, peanuts and cowpea, are likely to be seriously threatened even with the most conservative estimates regarding the magnitude of climate change," said lead author Andy Jarvis.
"There is an urgent need to collect and store the seeds of wild relatives in crop diversity collections before they disappear. At the moment, existing collections are conserving only a fraction of the diversity of wild species that are out there," he added.
Annie Lane, the coordinator of a global project on crop wild relatives led by Bioversity International, highlighted the irony in the situation. Domesticated crops are likely to experience problems as a result of climate change - but just when they need to revert to the gene pool to find ways of adapting to overcome them, the wild varieties are likely to disappear.
"We could end up losing a significant amount of these critical genetic resources at precisely the time they are most needed to maintain agricultural production," she said.
There are some ambitious projects aimed at preserving the seeds of wild plants currently in operation around the world, which has amongst its aims for the current project (until 2010) collecting seeds, herbarium specimens and data from 24,200 species worldwide, including the entire UK seed bearing flora, and to conserve these collections to international standards, both at the Millennium Seed Bank and in the countries of origin.
It also aims to establish partnerships to meet these conservation objectives, make seeds available for conservation and research, and carry out its own research on seed conservation.
A number of research institutes around the world are presently investigating genetic modification (GM) crops to combat the effects of climate change.
Earlier this month Professor Mark Tester, a plant genomics researcher at the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and fellow of the Australian Research Council Federation, said he believes GM will hold benefits for the whole world, not just developing countries, as global warming is changing conditions everywhere.
For instance, Australia - like other countries - is presently experiencing increasing levels of salinity. Around 5.7 m hectares of soil are affected, with efforts to combat the problem costing an estimated A$270 m a year.
Prof Tester thinks acceptance of GM will have to increase, if we are to avoid food shortages. It has been estimated that world food grain production will need to double by 2050 as the world's population continues to swell.