Securing crop biodiversity is key to feeding world’s growing population – UN study

Breeders and other scientists can use seeds and other plant genetic resources to develop and share improved varieties. Photo: FAO/Giulio Napolitano

30 January 2014 – Seeking to ensure that the world can feed a fast growing population, expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, the United Nations today published voluntary international standards to improve conservation of the crops that are crucial to food security by preserving biodiversity in gene banks and in the field.

“As the world’s population grows and continues to face a wide range of climate, environmental and other challenges, maintaining a healthy variety of seeds and other plant genetic resources for the benefit of people in all countries will be essential to keeping agricultural and food systems sustainable and resilient, generation after generation,” UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Assistant Director-General Ren Wang said.

The FAO publication, Genebank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, outlines voluntary, international standards for the many repositories – or genebanks - around the world that store seeds and other materials used to reproduce plants, as well as for living plants in the field.

More than 7 million samples of seeds, tissues and other plant-propagating materials from food crops, along with their wild relatives, are safeguarded in about 1,750 genebanks.

“Plant genetic resources are a strategic resource at the heart of sustainable crop production,” Mr. Ren writes in a foreword. “Their efficient conservation and use is critical to safeguard food and nutrition security, now and in the future. Meeting this challenge will require a continued stream of improved crops and varieties adapted to particular agro-ecosystem conditions.

“The loss of genetic diversity reduces the options for sustainably managing resilient agriculture, in the face of adverse environments, and rapidly fluctuating meteorological conditions.”

The standards are designed to guide users in implementing the most appropriate technologies and procedures for the collection, conservation and documentation of crop diversity. Their wide application also supports research that could stem the loss of biodiversity and boost sustainability in agriculture, both necessary for feeding the world’s burgeoning population.

“Genebanks help bridge the past and the future by ensuring the continued availability of plant genetic resources for research and for breeding new varieties that meet the consumers’ continually evolving needs and a changing climate,” said Linda Collette, Secretary of FAO’s Intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

“They help us to conserve plant genetic resources and to improve them; they also help countries to share and exchange genetic resources with each other.”

The standards address a wide range of issues, including techniques for collecting samples; consistent labelling; protection from fungi, bacteria, pests and physical stress factors; viability and genetic integrity testing; and, developing strategies for the rapid multiplication of samples for distribution.

The world’s genebanks differ greatly in the size of their collections and the human and financial resources at their disposal. The Standards will help genebank managers strike a balance between scientific objectives, resources available, and the objective conditions under which they work, FAO says.

“Genebanks play a key role in the conservation, availability and use of a wide range of plant genetic diversity for crop improvement for food and nutrition security,” the publication stresses in its preface. “An efficient management of genebanks through application of standards and procedures is essential for the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources.”

FAO experts consulted with a wide range of partners, including those at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global partnership whose research is carried out at 15 centres worldwide, in particular Bioversity International; genebank managers; relevant academic and research institutions; and national focal points for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.


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