Crop biodiversity

May 24,2017

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We need to use all the tools at our disposal to make a world free from hunger a reality, but one major ally isn’t getting the global attention it deserves: crop plant biodiversity. 

Crop plant biodiversity is the term used to describe all the genetic resources for any crop plant - either growing today or previously collected. This biodiversity has hardy traits such as disease resistances and heat tolerance built in. Over thousands of years, farmers worldwide have evolved a diverse array of food crops based on these traits. Plant breeders have used these genetic resources for decades to breed food crops more resilient to shocks and stresses, ensuring food and nutritional security for ever-growing numbers of people.

But our biodiversity habitats, where these genetic resources are naturally found, are shrinking. Global plant and animal biodiversity declined 30 percent between 1990 and 2007, twice as much in tropical regions. We cannot afford to let this continue.

We know sustainable agricultural practices are crucial to ensuring food and nutritional security for future generations, but they are also crucial for ensuring the health of our environment, which preserves biodiversity habitats.

This biodiversity can then be used to breed food crops that are resistant to pests, diseases and drought, enabling farmers to use less fungicide, insecticide or water on their farms, thus reducing their impact on the environment.

Recent work at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), for example, has identified maize varieties resistant to the Tar Spot Complex Disease. They are now being used by smallholder farmers in southern Mexico, whose crops have been severely affected by the disease, while plant breeders also use them to develop new disease-resistant varieties.

New crop varieties also often improve yield, making existing farmland more productive and reducing the need to clear more land for agriculture. This conserves more area for biodiversity habitats and reduces the greenhouse gas emissions associated with deforestation. This has been a major priority of initiatives such as the Global Environment Facility’s new programme on fostering sustainability and resilience for food security in 12 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, which we believe could mitigate 20 million tonnes of carbon.

Seeds are nature’s way of conserving and passing plant biodiversity from one generation to the next. For the same reason, collecting and conserving seeds in library-like seed or germplasm banks is critical for food and nutritional security. When natural disasters strike – like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or Hurricane Mitch in Honduras – the seeds that farmers rely on for food and income can be wiped out. Farmers in the Philippines and Honduras recovered the seeds of lost varieties thanks to the germplasm bank that CIMMYT maintains. This germplasm bank contains 170,000 maize and wheat varieties from across the globe.

Seeds are nature’s way of conserving and passing plant biodiversity from one generation to the next. For the same reason, collecting and conserving seeds in library-like seed or germplasm banks is critical for food and nutritional security. When natural disasters strike – like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, or Hurricane Mitch in Honduras – the seeds that farmers rely on for food and income can be wiped out. Farmers in the Philippines and Honduras recovered the seeds of lost varieties thanks to the germplasm bank that CIMMYT maintains. This germplasm bank contains 170,000 maize and wheat varieties from across the globe.

These examples show that we never know where, when or who the need to rely on biodiversity will hit.

So what must be done to bring crop plant biodiversity to its rightful role in eliminating hunger? As we react to a persistent series of acute crises, such as localised famines and natural disasters, we are tempted to delay investing in the long-term solutions like those associated with genetic resources, as they take years, sometimes decades to reach farmers.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Crop biodiversity: The key to ending hunger’.

Courtesy: Aljazeera.com


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