‘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.
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.
Equally, maintaining agrobiodiversity poses a major challenge, as modern crop varieties are almost all homozygous – each seed an identical clone, developed to maximise efficiently and predictably in specific regions and climate patterns. As extreme rainfall, temperature swings, pests and diseases ravage crops, these crops do not possess the genetic diversity to withstand environmental conditions outside the standard range.
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 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 common agricultural policy and the UK government to actively conserve the wild relatives of crop in the existing National Nature Reserve network.
Working at global, European and domestic levels, they have more recently 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.
Incouraging genetic diversity and crop conservation in Morocco
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.
“We have never faced a challenge on this scale,” comments Professor Maxted. “We have highly adapted and uniform crops tailored to produce maximum yield, which have lost the traditional genetic variation that has enabled crops to survive climatic disaster and disease in the past.
“There are many historic instances of crop failure, notably the Irish Potato Famine in the 1850s. We now know the solution is diversity of crops and crop varieties, the diversity we need can be found by either going back to the wild species related to modern crop or the crop landraces maintained by traditional farmers over many centuries – both of which possess the genetic diversity that is important for plant breeding.”
Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norwegian island of Spitsbergen
Professor Maxted cites UG 98 – a yellow wheat rust – as an example of this. A crop blight reducing wheat yields by up to 60%, researchers found immunity to the disease in traditionally farmed wheat varieties grown in Uganda.
His team’s research is making a major contribution to enhancing agrobiodiversity conservation and improving availability to breeders - resulting in improved crop yields and increased nutritional quality of new varieties based on an increasing breadth of genetic diversity that provides resilience in changing agro-environments.
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.
At a European level, another EU-funded Horizon 2020 project Farmers’ Pride is planning and implementing crop wild relative and traditional crop variety conservation and linking that conserved resource to commercial breeders use. This involves 39 partners from 30 European countries and focuses on establishing a self-sustaining in situ and on-farm conservation network of sites and partners across Europe - transforming European crop breeding by almost doubling the breadth of trait diversity available for breeders’ use.
The programme also complements Professor Maxted’s work with Spitsbergen – contributing seed samples to an enterprise, which he describes as creating ‘an external hard drive for humanity’.
“There are two ways to conserve plant genetic diversity,” he explains. “Either you preserve it where you find it or you collect seed samplers and freeze them at -18°C for up to 200 years. Normally, seeds are frozen for breeders to use quickly but at Spitsbergen we are creating a further back-up resource to use in the event of a major disaster.
“There are many national genebanks around the world, but these can inadvertently lose samples due to mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts and natural disasters. If we think of these genebanks as ‘local’ computers, our work at Spitsbergen is almost like ‘backing up’ the planet.”
Seed samples - 'an external hard drive for humanity'
As international science advisor for the UN’s agricultural research centre Bioversity International, Professor Maxted provides expert advice on addressing malnutrition, climate change adaptation and mitigation, retaining agricultural biodiversity, and promoting environmentally sustainable food and agricultural systems.
A further global focus of Professor Maxted’s work centres on the so-called ‘fertile crescent’ - a region in the Middle East, spanning modern-day Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan as well as the south-eastern fringe of Turkey and the western fringes of Iran.
Known as the ‘cradle of civilization’, because it is where settled farming first began to emerge as people started to grow newly domesticated plants as crops, current geo-political tensions mean the crescent is a difficult region in which to work.
Nevertheless, Professor Maxted is working with partners in the region Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, and Jordan to establish an in situ conservation network – starting with Jordan and Israel before expanding to Lebanon and beyond. With some 60% of the world’s crops originating in the region, the ‘fertile crescent’ holds the key to unlocking a solution to the regions, but also the world’s food security problems.
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“Crops will undoubtedly become more difficult to grow in the future because of climate change, but at Birmingham we are helping to underpin food security with our practical research publications, conservation strategies, action plans and policy guidance that has a global, regional and national reach,” comments Professor Maxted.
“Novel pathways for crop improvement have resulted from our research evidence-base – allowing breeders and farmers to create and use new ‘climate smart’ crop varieties and improved traditional farmer-based varieties that deliver sustainably better yield and quality - improving food security through better crop conservation, diversity use and crop management practices.”
All images of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault courtesy of the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food.
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