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Norway invests $23.7 million in crop diversity to help farmers face climate change

Conserving, breeding and sharing plant varieties key to resilience and sustainability
Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

24 September 2013, Muscat, Oman - The government of Norway has pledged $23.7 million to conserve and sustainably manage the world's most important food crops, citing the critical need for crop diversity at a time when populations are soaring and climate change is threatening staples like rice and maize.

"In just ten years we will have a billion more people at the global dinner table, but during that same time we could see climate change diminish rice production by ten percent with a one degree increase in temperature," said Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which will play a key role in distributing the funds. "Our best hedge against disaster is to make sure we have a wide array of food crops at our disposal to keep harvests healthy in the bread baskets of the world."

The announcement of the new investment in crop diversity came at the opening of the Fifth session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The meeting has drawn more than 450 participants from governments, science and civil society to Muscat, Oman, where they are discussing plans for sharing food crop varieties among farmers and plant breeders around the world and the Treaty activities over the next two years.

During the Ministerial Conference for the Near East and North Africa Region, Fuad bin Jafaar Al-Sajwani, Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries for Oman, commended Norway for its generous contribution to the Treaty's Benefit-sharing Fund and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

"Norway has been most generous in supporting this vital Treaty. I appeal to all donor countries, funds and foundations, especially those in the Arab countries, to follow Norway's example to help meet our Region's needs by contributing to the alleviation of poverty and the achievement of sustainable agriculture through the International Treaty," Al-Sajwani said.

The Norwegian investment, to be channelled through an endowment being raised by the Crop Trust and through the Benefit-sharing Fund of the Treaty, is intended to facilitate greater collaboration internationally in the collection, conservation and utilisation of seeds and plants. It adds to recent contributions from Italy and the European Union to help carry out the Treaty's mission and another from the United States to help fulfil the Crop Trust's endowment.

The Treaty, which is hosted at FAO, is intended to help ensure farmers and researchers have access to a large diversity of seeds and other plant genetic material to address a variety of risks, including those caused by extreme weather and plant pests and diseases-all of which could become more commonplace as climate change alters growing conditions. For example, a trait which needed to ensure maize can continue to be productive as temperatures rise in Kenya might lie in a variety only found in Mexico.

"For farmers to adapt to climate change, we need to make sure we preserve every known variety of crops like rice, maize, wheat, potatoes, along with those of less familiar crops like sorghum and cassava," Haga said.  "And we need to preserve their wild relatives as well."

The world's crop diversity is conserved in farmers' fields, which is called "in-situ" conservation, and in genebanks, which is known as "ex-situ" conservation. But diversity has dwindled as farmers have steadily cultivated a narrower band of crop varieties and genebanks have suffered from insufficient funding. Meanwhile, a recent study of the 29 most important food crops revealed severe threats to just over half of their wild relatives-species that can hold valuable traits for plant breeders.

The Crop Trust and the International Treaty are close partners in efforts to conserve and manage crop diversity. The Treaty's Benefit-sharing Fund is focused mainly on in-situ conservation while the Crop Trust has concentrated on ex-situ conservation.

"The Benefit-sharing Fund started 5 years ago but it's already had activities in 31 countries," said Dr Shakeel Bhatti, Secretary of the Treaty.

"Treaty-supported projects are helping farmers use crop diversity to adapt to the effects of climate change. To give one example, there are efforts underway in several countries to test and disseminate drought tolerant crop varieties, including varieties developed with genetic material from wild relatives and from samples stored in crop genebanks. At the same time, we seek to integrate lessons learned from such projects into national plans for ensuring farmers are prepared for climate change."

According to Bhatti, “the challenge in the coming years is to ensure long term conservation of important crops while at the same time strengthening the capacity of farmers and researchers to utilize these irreplaceable resources.


"Conserving and making crop diversity available provides options," concluded Haga. "One of these options might just save the future of agriculture and the future of the food we eat."

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