Due to a massive failure of the potato crop, caused by a fungus hitherto unknown in Europe, famine overwhelmed Ireland in the 1830s. Far off in the Andes mountains of South America, where the potato originated, scientists found the necessary genetic resistance to the fungus. The discovery helped end the famine, but not before more than one million people had died of starvation. This story shows dramatically the vital importance of preserving agricultural biodiversity.
Thousands of years of plant and animal selection by farmers around the world have created today's genetic diversity. This diversity is crucial in improving food quality and boosting food production. Genetic diversity is a key to food security, yet it is being rapidly eroded. The farmers and farm communities that developed all this diversity have been given little economic incentive to maintain it and the importance of their contribution has not been adequately recognized.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has for many years led a process of patient negotiations between governments, involving all stakeholders, to reach an agreement for the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources, as well as the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from of their use. In November 2001, the FAO Conference adopted the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture by consensus.
"This Treaty recognises the huge contribution made over generations by local farmers to developing and making available biodiversity. But it is also a life insurance policy for our future and our children's future," explains José Esquinas-Alcázar, Secretary of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. "Agricultural biodiversity is a vital inheritance from previous generations. We have a moral obligation to pass it on intact to our children so that they can face unpredictable environmental changes and changing human needs."
The International Treaty is legally binding and will enter into force when ratified by forty countries. National governments have the responsibility for realizing Farmers' Rights and developing mechanisms to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from the use of the genetic resources developed and conserved in farm communities. They are also charged with ensuring farmers' participation in the decision-making process.
This needs to be done as soon as possible, according to Mr. Esquinas. Biodiversity is disappearing at an alarming rate due to the lack of adequate incentives to continue developing and conserving local plant varieties.
Some figures: of 10,000 wheat varieties in use in 1949 in China, only 1,000 remained in use in the 1970s. Much of this valuable genetic diversity has been lost forever.
In traditional farming, now often surviving only in remote areas, such as high mountain zones, biodiversity and cultural diversity go together. Each local group produces and preserves locally adapted crop varieties that pass on through generations, from mother to daughter, from grandfather to niece.
"I grew up with my grandfather," explains Carlos Romero, a farmer in a small indigenous community in the Andes Mountains. "Thanks to him, I managed to keep all these different kinds of potatoes. We need all of them for our survival: some have better resistance to high temperatures, some last longer, some are more nutritious and some just taste better."
Once the International Treaty is ratified and comes into force, the valuable conservation work of local communities and traditional farmers like Mr Romero will finally be recognised and rewarded. Then it will be of value not only to him, but to the whole world.