Genetic Diversity in Agriculture

The research of Dr Nigel Maxted is committed to the conservation of genetic diversity in plants with a focus on species of agricultural value, using novel approaches to conservation and diversity management.

Executive summary

  • The world’s plant genetic resources hold great value for world food security, but they are under considerable threat. Crop improvement depends on the genetic diversity existing in our plant genetic resources, which are arguably inadequately conserved and used. Biodiversity is at risk from multiple threats including climate change.

Background

Dr Nigel Maxted’s work on genetic conservation of crop wild relatives and landraces (traditional farmer-bred crop varieties) is providing a template for the conservation of agrobiodiversity and other plant species in the UK, Europe and many countries around the globe.

Food security is one of the major global challenges of the 21st century. It is now widely recognised that the remaining genetic diversity found in the wild species related to domesticated crops is an important reservoir of genes and alleles that are required to develop new varieties suited to meet the challenges of the future.

Feeding a growing human population is one of these challenges. In 2018, the human population stood at 7.65 billion, with 78% living in developing countries. By 2050, the world population is expected to reach 9.8 billion, with 86% living in developing countries (UN, 2018). If we are to address this challenge, then we will need to develop new varieties of high-yield crops.

To feed the human population in 2050 we will need to increase food supplies by 60% globally – and 100% in developing countries (FAO, 2011). However, climate change may reduce agricultural production by 2% each decade this century (IPCC, 2014). There is therefore an urgent need to develop new crops that can sustain production in a changing environment.

Crop wild relatives are being increasingly mined for and providing novel resistance to pests and diseases, and drought and soil salinity. While traditional crop landraces, often disregarded as inferior to modern cultivars, are now recognized for their role sustaining production in marginal environments and meeting the needs of niche markets.

Both crop wild relative and landrace diversity is threatened by mismanagement of the environment and unsustainable changes in agricultural practices, and so the conservation of both are directly linked to human future well-being. The conservation of agrobiodiversity has historically been largely ad hoc and thus not fit for purpose in underpinning current and future farmers’ and consumers’ demands.

Lead academic

Dr Nigel Maxted, Senior Lecturer in Genetic Conservation

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