A serious and often neglected consequence of deforestation and the degradation of ecosystems is the loss of genetic resources of plant and animal species.
The tropical forests, which comprise the most complex and species-rich ecosystems in the world, are rapidly being destroyed or altered, causing unprecedented genetic impoverishment. The influences of atmospheric pollution and fire on the structure and richness of temperate and Mediterranean ecosystems have created a similar threat to the genetic resources of a range of species, especially in Europe and North America. Simultaneously, the domestication and intensive selection and breeding of plants of economic value are homogenizing populations, without due attention being paid to conserving the valuable variation that has developed in nature over millennia.
Genetic variation found within and between species serves a number of fundamentally important functions: it constitutes a buffer against changes in the environment (including those brought about by pests and diseases) and climate; it also provides the building blocks for human use in selection and breeding for adaptability to a range of environments and end uses.
Degraded lands and watersheds may be rehabilitated, and denuded hillsides reforested; but when a plant or animal species becomes extinct, or genetic variation is depleted, the loss is permanent. If human beings cause massive disturbance to natural environments, as is at present the case, they can no longer leave the conservation of genetic diversity to nature; they must take active steps to conserve it themselves.
Sustainable development is, to a large extent, dependent on the conservation and wise utilization of genetic resources of plants and animals. The need for conservation on a planned, coordinated and scientific basis is now a matter of urgency.
Acknowledging these principles, and in line with recommendations of the FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources and the Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources, FAO's Forestry Department has recently greatly stepped up its activities in the genetic resources field. Programmes focus mainly on the exploration, seed collection, evaluation and improvement of woody species; studies of methodologies and field activities in conservation in and ex situ; the dissemination of information through practical manuals and newsletters; and direct contacts and cooperation with institutes in developing countries active or interested in safeguarding and developing their natural resources for present-day and future use.
The lead article in this issue of Unasylva, by Professor Gene Namkoong, is based on the position paper he prepared for the genetic resources session of the Ninth World Forestry Congress, held in Mexico City in July 1985. Considering issues of both a technical and an ethical nature, Dr Namkoong outlines a number of alternative strategies for genetic resource management in woody plants and discusses their application as related to a range of socio-economic conditions; levels of technology; and biological objectives.
The conservation of genetic resources is an indispensable means to achieve well-being, and in some cases, it is essential for the very survival of people. Genetic resources are a common heritage of humankind; they should be made available to promote development in present generations while, at the same time, their availability for the benefit of future generations must be assured. The management of these resources must therefore be given the highest priority.