Improving agrobiodiversity availability to sustain food security

agrobiodiversity-case-study-headerHow can we ensure that everybody has enough food to eat?

‘Food security’ is a simple concept to grasp, but a complex global challenge confronting humankind. Every person on the planet should be able to access enough safe and nutritious food to live a healthy life, but achieving food security faces a number of major barriers.

Professor Nigel Maxted and his research team at the University of Birmingham are helping to reduce the threat to humanity from food insecurity by safeguarding agrobiodiversity and improving its availability for crop enhancement.

Their expert advice has changed global practices and policies - influencing the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to establish a global network for agrobiodiversity in situ conservation, the EU to provide incentives for continued tradition crop variety cultivation within the revise CAP and the UK government to actively conserve the wild relatives of crop in the existing National Nature Reserve network.

Key researchers

Nigel Maxted 3Professor Nigel Maxted

School of Biosciences

Chair in Plant Genetic Observation

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About the project

Food Security is a major global challenge confronting humankind today. Our expert advice has changed global practices and policies helping reduce the threat to humanity from food insecurity by safeguarding agrobiodiversity and improving its availability for crop enhancement.

Specifically, we influenced the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation to establish a global network for agrobiodiversity in situ conservation, European Commission to create an Integrated Strategy for the Conservation and Use of crop, forest and animal genetic resources and the UK government Agriculture Bill to more efficiently conserve agrobiodiversity through environmental stewardship schemes, all actions taken based on our expert advice. 

Background

More people means more mouths to feed. Given a projected increase in world population of 2.4 billion people to 9.6 billion people by 2050 and rising incomes continuing to change diets, we will need to produce more food than ever before. With little new land available for agriculture and rising sea levels reducing land availability - farmers will need to produce more without expanding the agricultural area.

Climate change will significantly alter what farmers can grow in terms of both crops and crop varieties, as heatwaves, cold snaps, droughts and floods significantly reduce crop yields. Extreme weather events simultaneously hitting the world’s major breadbasket regions could result in crop losses leading to food price spikes and have already resulted in civil unrest. 

The United Nations’ (UN) Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that all crop production will be reduced by 20% by 2050 and carry on falling. Increasing numbers of storms and extreme weather events will wreak havoc – for example, flattening fields of short-stemmed wheat and leaving it vulnerable to mildew.

Professor Maxted and co-worker’s research addresses the intractable challenge of improving global, regional and national food security by planning and enacting more effective conservation of agrobiodiversity.

Agrobiodiversity is composed of crop wild relatives (CWR ― the wild species closely related to crops) and crop landraces (LR — the traditional varieties seed-saved by farmers). Both of which provides the genetic diversity upon which crop improvement is based.

It is well documented that enhanced agrobiodiversity conservation and improving availability to breeders results in improved yield and nutritional quality of new varieties. All of which contribute towards meeting current and future food security targets and improving global human well-being. Such a goal requires influencing environmental policy to ensure (a) systematic agrobiodiversity management, and (b) facilitated access to sustain utilization, generating new climate smart crop varieties adapted to the increasingly adverse growing environment, while still meeting the consumer’s demands.

Our research underpins the scientific foundation of agrobiodiversity and guides policy impacting global, European and UK food security. Our established evidence-based research also demonstrates novel pathways for crop improvement at all three geographic scales. An example of a novel crop improvement pathway is as followed:

More effective management of the agrobiodiversity resource = more agrobiodiversity availability for sustainable utilization = research led targeting of the resource-base by breeders and farmers = production of new ‘climate smart’ varieties and improved traditional farmer-based varieties = creation of improved varieties with sustainably better yield and quality = improved food security and human well-being.

Recognitions and Impact

Our evidence based approach has generated impact at global, European and domestic levels. More recently this research has influenced the European Commission to create an integrated strategy for conserving and using crop, forest and animal genetic resources, as well as persuading the UK Government to formulate its Agriculture Bill so agrobiodiversity is better conserved through environmental stewardship schemes.

Professor Maxted is also working closely with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault - a secure seed bank on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. The facility preserves a wide variety of duplicate samples of seeds held in gene banks worldwide - an attempt to ensure against the loss of seeds in other genebanks during large-scale regional or global crises.

The team’s most recent EU-funded Horizon 2020 project GenRes Bridge sees Professor Maxted working with the European Parliament, EU Agric, EU Environment and 44 countries across Europe to develop a policy strategy that will form the basis of future European food and timber security.

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