Climate change is a fundamental threat to food security, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty. It is expected to reduce agricultural productivity, stability and incomes in many parts of the world, and to become an additional stress and risk factor in areas already facing high levels of food insecurity. Production systems and the genetic resources upon which they are based are severely threatened. Climate change is expected to affect the distribution of species, their population sizes, their behaviours and their life cycles. Ecological dynamics and equilibriums are likely to be affected. Potential consequences include asynchrony between the life cycles of pollinators and the flowering periods of crop plants, enhanced pathways for invasive alien species, and improved conditions for pests and parasites.
Conservation and utilization of a broad range of genetic resources in agriculture is an essential element of strategies for coping with the effects of climate change. It is widely recognized that forest and aquatic ecosystems have immense current importance – and even greater future potential – in the mitigation of climate change. However, the role of genetic resources for food and agriculture, especially in terms of adaptation, has received little attention.
Genetic resources are part of the solution
The many crop varieties and animal breeds upon which the world relies for its food security and nutrition will need to adapt to climate change. Genetic diversity gives rise to the diverse characteristics that enable plants and animals to fulfil different roles in the environment. Characteristics such as the length of plants’ growing seasons and their sensitivity to inputs such as fertilizer and water, as well as their resistance to pests, diseases and drought, are strongly influenced by their genes.
High diversity of genetic resources may appear redundant at one point in time, it however may become important when the environment changes. Such redundancy will allow for the continued functioning of the ecosystem and the provisioning of ecosystem services because different genotypes perform slightly different roles and occupy different environmental niches. This is why the diversity of genetic resources for food and agriculture is essential for maintaining and enhancing the efficiency and the resilience of agro-ecosystems.
Selection and breeding can be used to develop organisms that have particular traits that enable them to perform well in specific conditions. This can help farmers, pastoralists, fisher folk, fish farmers and forest managers to reduce their vulnerability to risks associated with climate. However, the use of such breeds or varieties does not preclude the importance of conserving and continuing to use a wide variety of genetic resources.
Most countries need to access genetic resources from elsewhere for their agricultural production and food security. Consequently, countries should be regarded as interdependent in their use of genetic resources. It is expected that the challenges posed by climate change will increase interdependency and lead to greater international exchange of genetic resources for food and agriculture.
The Commission’s work on climate change
At its Twelfth Regular Session in 2009, the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture recognized the need to address climate change in its Multi-Year Programme of Work. To reflect the state of knowledge on the impact of climate change on genetic resources for food and agriculture and discuss the potential roles of these resources in adaptation to and mitigation of climate change, the Commission requested FAO to conduct a scoping study on climate change and genetic resources for food and agriculture. The scoping study consisted of a number of sectoral studies (Background Study Papers 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 60).
The Thirteenth Regular Session in 2011 was preceded by the one-day special information seminar Climate Change and Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture: State of Knowledge, Risks and Opportunities. The seminar considered the relationships between genetic resources for food and agriculture and climate change, and explored opportunities for promoting the integration of agriculture, food security and the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources into the international climate-policy agenda. The Commission agreed that work on climate change needs to be implemented through an integrated approach and that consideration should be given to the specific needs of different sectors and regions and to the characteristics of different agricultural ecosystems. It acknowledged the role of indigenous and local communities and smallholder farmers in the conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture, especially with regard to the wild relatives of domesticated species, and highlighted the importance of both in situ and ex situ conservation in enabling adaptation to climate change.
At its Fourteenth Regular Session in 2013, the Commission adopted its Programme of Work on Climate Change and Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
The two objectives of the Programme of Work are to:
- Promote the understanding of the roles and importance of genetic resources for food and agriculture in food security and nutrition and in ecosystem function and system resilience in light of climate change.
- Provide technical information to enable countries to understand the role of genetic resources for food and agriculture in climate change mitigation and adaptation, as appropriate.
The Commission’s Programme of Work does not prejudice efforts under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to address climate change, and will refrain from providing policy prescriptive recommendations.