Rome, 26 April - In the first State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) today warned of a large scale loss of plant genetic resources and said the erosion of biodiversity and the irreversible loss of genes, vital for agriculture and food security, give reason for major concern. "The spread of modern, commercial agriculture and the introduction of new varieties of crops has been the main cause of the loss of genetic diversity", the report said. Many genebanks are reported to be in a state of rapid deterioration.

The FAO study, based on more than 150 country reports, was prepared for the International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources, to be held in Leipzig, Germany, 17-23 June 1996. The International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) collaborated in the preparation of the report.

"The diversity of life on earth is essential to the survival of humanity. The conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources is vital to improving agricultural productivity and sustainability. It contributes to food security and poverty alleviation", FAO Director- General Jacques Diouf said in connection with the release of the FAO report.

"Today the world is not food secure: 800 million people in the developing countries, 200 million of them children, are chronically undernourished. World food production will have to increase by more than 75 per cent over the next 30 years to ensure food supplies for 8.3 billion people by the year 2025, compared to 5.7 billion today. To meet this challenge we rely on the genetic material of plants and animals."

The Report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources cites some examples of the loss of biodiversity:

  • In China, of the nearly 10 000 wheat varieties in use in 1949, only 1 000 remained in the 1970s. China also noted losses of wild groundnut and wild rice.
  • In the United States, 95 per cent of the cabbage, 91 per cent of the field maize, 94 per cent of the pea, and 81 per cent of the tomato varieties cultivated in the last century have been lost.
  • In Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand, local rice, maize and fruit varieties are being replaced.
  • In Ethiopia, native barley is suffering serious genetic erosion and durum wheat is being lost.
  • The Andean countries are experiencing large-scale erosion of local varieties of indigenous crops and crop wild relatives.
  • Uruguay states that many landraces of vegetables and wheat have been replaced.
  • Chile observes losses of local potato varieties, as well as oats, barley, lentils, watermelon, tomato and wheat.
  • Genetic erosion has also been severe in Europe with many of the traditional varieties being lost.

In Africa, the degradation and destruction of forests and bush lands is cited as a main cause of genetic erosion. Overgrazing and over- exploitation are the reason for the erosion of biodiversity in Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the Near East. Wars and civil strife have contributed to genetic erosion in Africa and Asia. In Latin America, most countries report major genetic erosion of economically important forest species.

The concomitant increase in uniformity of plant genetic material can also lead to greater risk and uncertainty, according to FAO. In many cases it is necessary to return to the store of genetic diversity to find genes conferring resistance to pests or disease. Considerable genetic uniformity now exists in a number of crops like hybrids of rice and sunflowers. Currently, uniformity in the rootstock of California wine grapes and the resulting uniform susceptibility to a virulent disease is causing wine producers to dig up and replace their vines at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, says FAO.

The FAO report noted that many food crops which provide the main staples for millions of the world's poor people, like sorghum, millet, potatoes and cassava, do not receive enough attention or investment in terms of conservation research and development. For example, landraces of rice from Madagascar, Mozambique, and Southern Asia are still under- represented in collections as are wild rice species from Eastern, Central and Southern Africa, and from Latin America.

FAO voiced concern also about the state of the world's genebanks; many of them do not meet minimum international standards for long-term storage. About 6 million accessions are being stored worldwide in a total of 1 308 genebanks. Most countries, however, do not have facilities for the long-term storage and conservation of plant genetic resources. Although 77 countries report that they have seed storage facilities, probably fewer than half can offer secure, long-term management of seeds.

In a number of countries, genebanks are in a state of rapid deterioration, FAO said, and are facing constraints such as:

  • Equipment problems, particularly in cooling units and lack of humidity control equipment;
  • Insecurity of electricity supply;
  • Difficulties in seed drying, especially in the humid regions.

To keep seeds viable, they need to be regenerated and regrown periodically. FAO estimates that as many as one million accessions may now be in need of regeneration, which indicates that many of the world's genebanks are facing problems in maintaining seed quality - and that much of the diversity collected in the past is threatened.

The complementarity between seed conservation in genebanks (ex situ) and in ecosystems and natural habitats (in situ) should be strengthened, FAO said. Most plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are located in ecosystems such as farms, rangelands and forests, very often used as common property. Over one billion people live in farm families, which are responsible for management and improvement of plant genetic resources. Many of these farmers have limited financial resources and farm on marginal lands. FAO called for a strengthening of management and improvement of plant genetic resources in these marginal areas by small- scale farmers to develop and improve planting materials on the farm and in home gardens.

The International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources in Leipzig will discuss a Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The main aims of the Plan are: to ensure the conservation of plant genetic resources as a basis for food security; to promote better utilization of plant genetic resources; to promote a better sharing of the benefits of plant genetic resources with countries, communities and farmers. FAO expects about 160 governments and 100 NGOs to attend the Leipzig-Conference.

Note: The FAO report and other relevant documentation are available on Internet: