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World’s gene pool crucial for survival

On 30th anniversary of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, FAO underlines the urgency of safeguarding key genes that will help weather the shocks of climate change

Photo: ©FAO/Jon Spaull
Indian scientist taking seeds from a variety of wheat to make genetic improvements

Rome, 15 April 2013 -- Conserving and making the most of the planet's wealth of genetic resources will be crucial for survival, as people will need to produce sufficient and nutritious food for a growing population,  FAO Deputy Director-General Dan Gustafson said today addressing the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

The Commission, the only intergovernmental body to specifically address all matters related to the world's gene pool for food and agriculture, is marking its 30th anniversary and is meeting in Rome this week.

"FAO believes that adaptation of the agriculture sector is not merely an option, but an imperative for human survival, and genetic resources will form an essential part of any adaptation strategy," he said.

"Ensuring food security in the face of climate change is among the most daunting challenges facing humankind," Gustafson said.

Plants account for over 80 percent of the human diet. Some 30 crops account for 95 percent of human food energy needs and just five of them - rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum - alone provide 60 percent. Yet more than 7000 plant species have been gathered and cultivated since people first learned to do so many millennia ago. And there are as many as 30 000 edible terrestrial plant species in the world.

"Climate change impacts are expected to reduce agricultural productivity, stability and incomes in many areas that already experience high levels of food insecurity. Yet world agricultural production must increase 60 percent by the middle of this century - less than 40 years from now - to keep pace with the food requirements of the world's growing population,"said Gustafson.

"Genetic resources for food and agriculture play a crucial role in food security, secure livelihoods and environmental services. They also play a crucial role in enabling crops, livestock, aquatic organisms and forest trees to withstand climate change-related conditions."

Climate Change Roadmap

The Commission will be considering a Roadmap on Climate Change and Genetic Resources for an initial phase through 2017. Activities foreseen include awareness-raising, developing guidelines on integrating genetic resources for food and agriculture into adaptation planning, identifying hotspots where biodiversity is under particular threat from climate change and developing an action plan to conserve crop wild relatives from the threat of extinction.

While the Commission is more advanced on plant and animal genetic resources, FAO is also making significant progress in addressing the genetic resources of forests, aquatic life, micro-organisms and invertebrates, reflecting the broadened mandate of the Commission since 1995. including, Bacteria, for example, are essential for production of yogurt and cheese, earthworms churn soil and break down organic matter into essential nutrients and a plethora of pollinators, such as the honeybee, enable 35 percent of the world's crops to reproduce.

Hitting where it hurts

Nations in the warmest parts of the planet will  be hardest hit by climate change, as temperature rises are expected to be sharpest and their agricultural systems least prepared to cope with climate change impacts. Arid and semi-arid zones are expected to become drier, for one, while precipitation in other areas will be more variable and much less predictable.

"It's clear that humankind is going to have to use all the tools at our disposal in order to face up to the challenge of producing enough food as the planet warms," said Linda Collette, Secretary of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

"We are constantly adding to the long inventories of known land and aquatic animals, plants, trees, invertebrates such as pollinating insects and even microscopic organisms - and their genes - and some hold the key to climate change adaptation. Not only must we conserve that genetic diversity, but we must also ensure access to them and ensure we equitably and fairly share the benefits derived from their use," she explained.

Genetic diversity under threat

FAO estimates that in the last century, about 75 percent of crop genetic diversity was lost as farmers worldwide switched to genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties and abandoned multiple local varieties.

Having recourse to genetic material is however essential to adapt and improve agriculture in the face of threats, such as diseases or warming climate that can alter growing conditions. For example, a variety of Turkish wheat, collected and stored in a seed gene bank in 1948, was rediscovered in the 1980s, when it was found to carry genes resistant to many types of disease-causing fungi. Plant breeders now use those genes to develop wheat varieties that are resistant to a range of diseases.

According to the most recent FAO data, 22 percent of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction. However, the local breeds that are least understood often carry genetic defenses that enable them to walk long distances to watering holes, survive with reduced water and fodder intake or fight off tropical diseases. Many ‘industrial' cattle breeds - for example, the high output dairy animals - often don't make it under such harsh conditions. In addition:

  • The world's aquatic ecosystems are made up of approximately 175 000 species of fish, mollusks, crustaceans and aquatic plants. Just ten species account for the world's haul in capture fisheries, while ten species account for half of global fish farming production;
  • There are 80 000 tree species worldwide, but just 1 percent have been studied in any depth. Forests are home to 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity, while forests are being cleared at an alarming rate - with consequences for global warming;
  • Invertebrates constitute 95 percent of all animal life, while the hidden treasure trove of biodiversity of micro-organisms is incalculable.
The Commission strives to halt the loss of genetic resources for food and agriculture, and to ensure world food security and sustainable development by promoting their conservation, sustainable use, including exchange, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their use.