Conserving plant genetic resources for “future-proofing” food supply
Humankind has come to rely on just a handful of staple crops for its survival, namely wheat, rice, maize, potato and, more recently, soybean, sunflower oil and palm oil (see 2014 study).
Besides the health risks associated with excessively uniform diets, food systems relying upon just a few crops are particularly vulnerable to major threats like drought, insect pests, and diseases, all expected to worsen with climate change.
But these few crops that the world consumes today come from a huge diversity of wild plants and crop varieties that have evolved over thousands of years and were crossbred by nature, farmers, and scientists.
The wild ancestors of the world’s most important crops could help avert devastating problems http://t.co/i9jG0nxONt pic.twitter.com/9SL6ypvgRY— The Economist (@TheEconomist) September 12, 2015
- Adapt to climate change
- Improve food and nutrition security, and health
- Reduce environmental damage
- Resist pest and disease threats
Scientists have engineered the food that will help save a starving, warming planet http://t.co/dC8bCRRTM7 pic.twitter.com/Ijyl3qGLf0
— Quartz (@qz) March 25, 2015
Conserving and sharing this diversity is one of the fundamentals of sustainable food futures.
Mi cassava es tu cassava
Following CIAT’s groundbreaking work on the globalization of diets, in 2014 the same team of scientists turned their attention to where the plants we eat come from.
They wanted to find out how much different regions of the world depend on others in a very specific sense.
Usually, when we think of interdependence in terms of food we think of trade; we think of self-sufficiency or dependence in very narrow terms. But there is another dimension that connects us even more deeply, one of interdependence in terms of plant genetic resources.Colin Khoury
The argument goes like this: cassava originated in South America, therefore Africa – where so much cassava is produced and consumed – needs South America. Why? Because South America has a much bigger range of cassava diversity than Africa. This includes plants that might be distant cassava relatives that endure in the wild, or the many varieties in genebanks or farmers’ fields that simply never made it to Africa. If a disease breaks out in African cassava fields, the varieties in South America might contain traits that crop breeders can use to make Africa’s cassava more resilient.
But South America also needs South and Southeast Asia, where sugarcane comes from; Southeast Asia needs West and Central Africa for oil palm, and so on. Now enter climate change: rising temperatures could mean North America needs to track down heat-tolerant rice varieties from Asia; East Asia will need South America for more resilient peanuts, and if anything happens to coffee, the whole world is going to need Africa.
The team found that, on average, of all the plants providing calories, fat, and proteins in our diets, over two-thirds originate beyond the national borders within which they are consumed. In short, we all depend on each others’ plants.
But there’s a catch. Lots of those plants aren’t conserved, while others are conserved but not shared. The key to pest-resistant cassava or drought-tolerant beans could be out there in the plants’ wild relatives, uncollected. Or the plants could be locked away in a genebank somewhere for no-one to use. For scientists like Colin, that means we’re vulnerable: our food supply has a genetic safety net that is a mere fraction of all the diversity out there. It’s too few eggs in not enough baskets. That led the team to two simple, if far-reaching conclusions.
First, we should conserve all plants related to our food supply. That means getting as many different samples of domesticated crops – plus their wild and weedy brethren – into the world’s genebanks as quickly as possible. Cities are going up; trees are coming down; habitats are being turned into car parks. Tomorrow, some of those plants might be lost forever; many have already disappeared.
Second, those collections should be shared with whoever needs them.
“The genetic diversity of crops should be considered public goods,” says Colin. “That means no-one owns them, but everyone can benefit from them.”
A transparent, free and open system for sharing these collections means the plants can be more easily used in crop-breeding programs around the world, to toughen up popular varieties. CIAT’s genebank is already part of this system, conserving collections of cassava, beans and tropical forages, with a global mandate to make them freely available.
Colin, together with scientists from the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and others, took the research to a meeting of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) in Rome in October 2015. They hope the work will influence the scope of the treaty, which sets the guidelines for the global sharing of plant genetic resources.
This story in the media:
- BBC News – 21 March 2016 – Go wild to protect food security, says study
- National Geographic’s The Plate – 22 March 2016 – Scientists say go wild to preserve crops for the future
- Science – 21 March 2016 – Wild relatives of key crops not protected in gene banks, study finds
- Inter Press Services – 24 March 2016 – Interview with Ruben Echeverría: A New Roadmap to Meet Hunger Goals
Genebanks: A trove of crop diversity
Few people have heard of plant genebanks or are aware of the role they play for agriculture and food production.
Genebanks are places where biological material is collected, stored, catalogued and made available for redistribution. Genebanks are not just biodiversity repositories. They provide direct help to farmers and national breeding programs.
CGIAR has a partnership with the Global Crop Diversity Trust to conserve the diversity of plant genetic resources in collections held by 11 CGIAR members, including CIAT, and to make this diversity available to breeders under the framework of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
For one – and only one – of the 169 targets within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 2030 is not nearly soon enough.
By 2020, according to target 2.5, we must:
Maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at the national, regional and international levels, and promote access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, as internationally agreed.
CIAT’s genebank today
CIAT’s genebank holds in trust 67,700 total samples of key crops which feed millions of people around the world:
Half a billion people in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean depend on this root crop for food.
A crucial source of vitamins and protein as well as income for millions of people, particularly in Africa and Latin America.
A valuable source of livestock feed, helping farmers improve meat and milk production while reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture.
- Thanks to generous funding from the German Government, CIAT established new greenhouses and growth chambers which allow for global seed distribution and a better understanding of the diversity kept in trust.
- We received 897 visitors
The future of CIAT’s genebank: Future Seeds
A global hub for crop diversity
CIAT has also embarked on an ambitious initiative called Future Seeds to upgrade its genebank to better store and distribute key crop collections in trust for humanity: beans, cassava, and tropical forages.
Beyond this, the state-of-the-art environmentally sustainable facility will also generate and make available vast amounts of invaluable information that can help unlock the secret power of seeds. In addition, it will serve as a hotbed for innovative training and outreach.
By investing in the global system today we can have enough food for tomorrow
CIAT continues reaching out to governments, foundations, the private sector, and individuals to establish a global genebank and knowledge hub for agrobiodiversity.
A global hub for crop diversity
To better safeguard key crop collections
To share more crop diversity with the world
To strengthen the capacity of other organizations and teach the public about the importance of crop diversity
For a more food-secure future
The Future Seeds initiative is well underway thanks to generous investments by:
With crop diversity rapidly dwindling, the need to collect, preserve, study, and share these important resources is imperative if we are to realize a food-secure future. Join us in establishing a new building for biodiversity.