Planting the seed for a more food secure future

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The conservation of these vital plant genetic resources is therefore essential to ensure that a wide range of diversity is available for future use to help safeguard the survival of humankind.”

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The challenge of securing nutritious and sustainable food is receiving increasing attention throughout the world. The pandemic, supply chain issues and climate change are having huge and noticeable impacts on our daily food shop. Prices of food are increasing, along with concerns about the quality of food and consequences on long-term health. These issues are driven by economic and political factors, but they mask a significant long-term problem. We need to address the lack of diversity in our food systems and the ongoing loss of the very diversity we need to change this—both from wild species and locally adapted crops, which are rich in the diversity needed to breed resilience into our crops and diversify our food and agricultural systems.

Populations of these wild and cultivated species (known as ‘crop wild relatives and ‘landraces’) provide vital ecosystem services to society. However, they are threatened by a range of factors driven by anthropogenic pressures and economic interests, including: loss, modification or fragmentation of natural habitats driven by demands on land use; intensive and unsustainable farming practices; the wide-ranging impacts of climate change on the environment, such as drought, flooding and extreme weather events; the cultivation of modern cultivars to the exclusion of local crop varieties driven by global market demands; environmental pollution caused by industrial processes; and competition from alien invasive species.

The conservation of these vital plant genetic resources is therefore essential to ensure that a wide range of diversity is available for future use to help safeguard the survival of humankind. To achieve this, the maintenance of the genetic diversity in populations in situ, which is continually adapting to local environmental conditions, with backup in ex situ facilities to provide access to material by plant breeders and farmers—is imperative.

Currently, in situ conservation (that is, the active management of populations in their natural habitats in the case of crop wild relatives, or in the locations where they are cultivated in the case of crop landraces), with complementary ex situ conservation (that is, the conservation of plant genetic resources in off-site facilities to conserve seeds and other plant materials), is unplanned and uncoordinated. To streamline and strengthen our efforts, we need an effective and permanent system in place for in situ and complementary ex situ conservation. 

To this end, the EU-funded Farmer’s Pride project brought together key actors to lay the foundations for lasting in situ conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources in Europe by lobbying for, planning and establishing a new regional network of sites, populations and conservation and use stakeholders for crop wild relative and landrace diversity. The network builds on existing regional, national and local networks, and relevant formal and informal initiatives and policies, and when fully functional will at least double the diversity available to plant breeders and farmers.

It is not just plant genetic resources that are vital for society—animal and forest genetic resources also have key roles in providing ecosystem services vital for food security, as well as sustainable agriculture and forestry. The EU-funded GenRes Bridge project aims to strengthen conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources by accelerating collaborative efforts and widening capacities in the plant, forest and animal domains.  

We hope that progress made at European level through these two projects will be mirrored in other regions and eventually scaled out towards a global initiative to safeguard diversity for food and agriculture.  

Access to a diversity of seed varieties is one issue that is being investigated by the University’s Institute of Global Innovation through the Forum for Global Challenges. The Forum for Global Challenges is an international conference taking place in 2022, with the aim of bringing together diverse views and experiences to address the global challenges of climate change and inequalities. In current times of global transformation, where there is a need for increased sustainable consumption and development, whilst addressing the growing impact of climate change and population increase, we need greater diversity of plant genetic resources to sustain our food supplies than ever before. As the environmental conditions in which crops are cultivated become increasingly modified, changeable and uncertain, diversity is key to resilience in agricultural production systems.  

In the face of these existential challenges, our food, nutrition and economic security depend on the conservation and continual availability of a wide range of plant genetic resources for use by plant breeders and farmers to diversify and improve our crops. Whilst at the same time, we need to ensure improved livelihoods and resource equality, thereby addressing unfairness in access to resources and food and nutrition security. Join the conversation now in the Forum for Global Challenges’ Online Community to share your knowledge and experience on the importance of diverse plant genetic resources and access to these by farmers across the world.

Homepage image courtesy of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault courtesy of the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

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