Hey, Food Security...put some genes on!

Genetic resources are arguably the anchoring point for achieving food security, sustainable agriculture and nutrition. The design and implementation of policies and programs to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals is dependent on our knowledge and use of genetic resources.

In a side event at the 43rd Session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS43), panel members explored the use of genetic diversity for food security and nutrition. Kostas G. Stamoulis, Assistant Director-General at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UNFAO), opened the discussion by stating that policy makers need to integrate genetic resources into their documents. Genetic resources for food and agriculture are the strategic tool on which all our food production system depends.

Hold up...what are genetic resources?

Genetic resources are those materials of plant, animal, microbial or other biological origin, which contain functional units of heredity. These units of heredity have all the information required to produce the next generation.

...and what does genetic diversity/biodiversity mean?

Genetic diversity is the total number of different genetic characteristics that are within a population, these differences can be both intra- and inter- species.

So what’s the problem?

According to Dr. Irene Joffman, Secretary of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA the world is currently using and relying upon a very limited number of species to feed itself. Dr. Joffman asked the question “How many species are available to us?”, and the answer to this was significantly greater than the answer to “and how many species do humans depend on?”. This is not good.

The problem is that by being dependent on so few genetic resources, we are decreasing our genetic diversity; our genetic resources (a process known as genetic erosion). Genetic resources enable scientists and breeders to develop new varieties with characteristics that are more nutritious and resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses. They mix and match the genetic resources that we currently have to produce varieties for our future needs. Once a genetic resource is lost, the thousands of years it took to be generated go with it and the resource cannot be recovered.

What are we doing about it?

You may have heard of the “Doomsday Vault”, where the world’s plant genetic resources: seeds from 5, 340 different species, are safely stored inside a mountain on a remote island. Here they are  kept come the day that we need to call upon them. There are other deposits around the world but many are exposed and vulnerable to both natural and man-caused disasters.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) is another international mechanism that has initiatives for in vitro conservation of plant genetic resources. It also promotes and funds projects situated in ex situ environments.

As well as these conservation efforts, it was particularly exciting to hear what Brazilian leaders are doing about genetic erosion. Larissa Maria Lima Costa, the representative of Brazil to the UNFAO, explained how their national food and nutrition policies already make reference to biodiversity and stressed the importance of including traditional orindigenous foods. Their dietary guidelines refer to biodiversity and explain how a diverse diet is not only healthier for the consumer but also the environment.

It was inspiring to then hear Dr. Daniela Moura de Oliveira Beltrame, from the Ministry of Environment in Brazil, follow up with practical examples of how such policies and guidelines can be successfully implemented. Brazil has programs that focus on capacity development. Their initiatives work together with universities, research institutes, students, communities, farmers,and  chefs (they include everyone), to raise awareness and increase the demand for more diverse diets and consequently genetically-diverse agricultural practices.

Methods that incorporate all stakeholders from each point of the food production chain have effectively educated everyone on the importance of genetic diversity. People are able to appreciate its importance and make informed decisions on what to eat.

Although it is a complex issue, genetic resources for food and agriculture must be brought into the spotlight. There is an urgency to act now, we cannot afford to lose the little that we have left. If we do not use our genetic resources sustainability, we risk losing it all...we risk uncovering a world where food insecurity threatens our existence.

Blogpost by Jana L. Phan, #CFS43 Social Reporter – jana.phan(at)adelaide.edu.au

Photo Credit: Adapted from myMuzik on Pixabay

This post is part of the live coverage during the 43rd Session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only

21/10/2016 8:28

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