Posted March 1996
Biological diversity is of direct importance to the future of all countries. Genetic diversity provides the basis for speciation, allowing a species to respond to natural selection and adapt to its environment, adjusting its functions within both the community and the ecosystem.
Many thousands of years of herding, farming and management have resulted in a vast range of useful variations in domesticated animals and crops. In addition, the value of wild plants and animals has been increased by traditional knowledge of their use for food, medicine, fibres and forage. For many crop species, testing and enhancement is not extensively available and the diversity of less well-known materials from random or wild collections or explorations are directly used. Pre-breeding can also enhance adaptability for different environmental or economic demands and can differentiate populations to generate more useful diversity within crop species.
Changes in biodiversity occur through time in all communities and ecosystems. Some of these changes result from natural and others forms of human disturbances. Although biological resources are renewable they are being depleted at rates that exceed their sustainable yield, mainly in consequence of human activities, leading to the loss of biodiversity. This is frequently presented as an environmental problem but essentially the underlying causes are social, economical and political.
Loss of biodiversity - genetic erosion - reduce future options for the global community and small farmers. In many parts of the world, they depend on wild species and natural habitats to support household food security. For generations, subsistence farmers have been producing or gathering plants in the wild that have long been accepted as desirable sources of food or medicine. Many countries, however, are experiencing a shift away from traditional foods, narrowing the food base. Modern plant breeding, as well as new biotechnologies, offer the potential to exploit little-known plant species as sources of food and to enhance the qualities of those plants that are underutilized - especially traditional plants which play a fundamental role in the agriculture and food supply of indigenous people and local communities - such as local grains, legumes, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables.
Crop genetic diversity is still concentrated mainly in centres of diversity and located in the developing world. Farmers in these areas helped preserve genetic diversity by cultivating local varieties, so-called land races, selected over many generations. Land races and their wild relatives, which are the closely related species that survive in the wild, are the richest repositories of crop genetic diversity. Genetic diversity in agriculture provides crops and animals with ability to adapt to ever-changing needs and conditions such as drought, inundation, poor soils and pest diseases.
Presently, there is a threat to the world food security due to genetic erosion. Among the causes for this erosion are the change of land use, including agricultural practices; the introduction of more uniform varieties, which in addition to the displacement of traditional cultivars, also require irrigation and application of pesticides and fertilizers; and legislation and policy that lead to a limitation of farmers' plant breeding activities.
Modern varieties have immunity to specific races of pests. The initial resistance of modern varieties induce farmers to their exclusive use. Consequently, there is a decrease of stability in the next generations, making them vulnerable to pests and diseases. One of the most serious effects on the stability of farming systems is when pests overcome crops' resistance. Many of the varieties being lost may contain genes that breeders and biotechnologists could have used to develop even more productive varieties or to improve resistance to diseases.
A similar pattern of genetic erosion and increased vulnerability is occurring among domesticated animals due to the highly specialized nature of modern livestock production. Livestock breeds found outside Europe could be at risk of extinction at a rate of one in four. Commercial breeds introduced from the developed world often need management and technologies that are neither affordable nor sustainable for most farmers in the developing world. Most domesticated animals, after generations of controlled interbreeding, no longer have wild relatives from which genetic material can be derived. Animal genetic diversity is essential to sustain the productivity of agriculture. It is represented by a wide range of breeds, many of which indigenous, with valuable features. There is already less genetic diversity in farm animals than in crop plant species and over a third of the remaining animal genetic resources is currently at risk.
FAO's field programmes seek to conciliate conservation and utilization of biodiversity and genetic resources, offering technical advice and assistance to governments in planning and carrying out conservation projects, thus stimulating policy and institutional reform. Publications and a wide range of educational and training materials are produced on the use and conservation of biological diversity and genetic resources.
In 1983 the first permanent intergovernmental forum on plant genetic resources was established. It comprises the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources and the first legal framework, which is the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources.
The Commission is a neutral forum through which donors and users of germplasm, information, technologies and funds can work towards consensus and cooperation on the issues related to germplasm conservation and development.
The International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources assures that resource species of present or potential economic or social importance are explored, conserved, evaluated, utilized and made available for plant breeding and other research purposes. It is being revised in order to adapt the Undertaking in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity, to agree terms to plant genetic resources and to realize Farmers' Rights. It is expected that the revised Undertaking will become a legally binding agreement and perhaps a protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Although not yet established, the International Fund for Plant Genetic Resources intends to provide a means for countries, organizations and private industry and individuals to support conservation and promote sustainable use of plant genetic resources. This fund is vital both to the effective implementation of the Global System and to the realization of Farmers' Rights.
The concept of Farmers' Rights was developed to recognize and reward the contribution of farmers and indigenous peoples to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and genetic resources through their own informal knowledge system of plants and animals used for food and agriculture production. It recognizes the contribution of generations of rural people to domestication of wild species and their subsequent improvement through on-farm breeding. They have thus conserved germplasm and made it available to societies. While it would be utopian for them to claim individual compensation, their collective rights to share the benefits derived from genetic resources have been unanimously recognized by FAO's Member Countries and adopted by FAO's Conference.
The International Code of Conduct for Germplasm Collecting and Transfer proposes procedures to request and/or to issue licences for collecting missions, provides guidelines for collectors themselves, and extends responsibilities and obligations to the sponsors of missions, the curators of gene banks, and the users of genetic material. It calls for the participation of farmers and local institutions in collecting missions and proposes that users of germplasm share the benefits from the use of plant genetic resources within the host country and its farmers.
A Code of Conduct for Biotechnology for Germplasm Collecting and Transfer is being negotiated and is designed to prevent the erosion of genetic resources, assist access to them, and protect the rights of countries and local communities.
The International Network of Ex Situ Collections, under the Auspices and/or Jurisdiction of FAO and with technical assistance of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), was established with collections of 12 International Agricultural Research Centres in 1994. A Network of In Situ Conservation Areas, with special emphasis on wild relatives of crops and on farm conservation and utilization of land races, is still under development.
The World Information and Early Warning System on Plant Genetic Resources collects and disseminates data and facilitates the exchange of information on plant genetic resources and related technologies. The objective is to draw international attention to hazards threatening the operation of gene banks and the loss of genetic diversity throughout the world. The Information System is already established and include records of ex situ collections in 130 countries. The Early Warning System is still at planning stage.
The State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources is a periodic report to cover all aspects of the conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources, as well as activities and programmes being carried out nationally and internationally, aiming at identifying gaps, constraints and situations requiring immediate action. A Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources is being prepared based on this information. This Plan is designed to rationalize and coordinate efforts in plant genetic resources and provide estimates for funding needs. It is expected to be adopted in 1996.
The Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources is scheduled to be organized by FAO in 1996. This Conference will include the first report on the State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources. An Action Programme on Plant Genetic Resources will also be presented for discussion. Currently there are proposals to broaden the mandate of the Commission to include animal and fish genetic resources as it is the case for crops and forest biological diversity and genetic resources.
In relation to wildlife, which has always played an important role in food security in rural areas, FAO continues to provide advice to member countries on methodologies for sustainable utilization with emphasis on ecosystem conservation and biological diversity.
FAO provides advice and information on the development of national protected area systems, including resource assessment and monitoring, with support to wildlife training institutions, data collection on wildlife utilization, promotion of game farming technologies and small mammal husbandry.
At present less than five percent of the earth's land surface is allocated for conservation as national parks or other types of legally protected areas. Conservation have been taken aside for many reasons, but rarely with reference to the location of valuable gene pools. Frequently they are too small to maintain viable populations of the threatened species and varieties they do contain. At the same time, experience shows that policies to control and protect such reserves will not succeed without the active support of local people and complementary programmes aimed at meeting their needs. Genetic management can only be successful in the longer term if it is able to use the intrinsic dynamics of ecosystems and species to conserve their diversity and evolutionary capacity.
FAO has helped to organize working parties in a number of countries and regions, most notably in Africa, where a standing working party on wildlife operates within the framework of the Africa Forestry and Wildlife Commission of FAO. An information processing system has been developed for linkage to data in the IUCN network. Similar networking arrangements are also supported by FAO in Latin America and Caribbean regions.
Properly managed, forest ecosystems can provide goods and services while, at the same time, perpetuating their genetic resources. The sustainable harvesting of non-wood products can improve food security and nutrition, while agroforestry enables farmers to diversify agricultural production and reclaim degraded land.
FAO's forest policy has been focused on restorative and proactive activities, promoting alternative livelihoods in forest frontier areas. Activities are directed towards the conservation and sustainable use of the genetic resources of socio-economically important tree and shrub species. Forest resources are used to supply food, fodder, medicine and timber, poles and fuelwood as well as raw materials for industry.
The income earned from trees and forests is of vital importance to both rural populations and national incomes. Nowadays, the population pressures are reducing the land available for shifting cultivation. Shorter fallow periods and overuse are turning into destructive ones.
Rural people living in and around forest areas depend on a large variety of forest products for subsistence. Woody species provide three-quarters of the population in developing countries with their energy source.
The major threats to forest resources are the narrowing of the genetic base of tree species as a result of commercial forestry operations, and deforestation which vary from region to region. The most important causes of deforestation includes the conversion of forest land into agricultural use; the excessive use of fuelwood; shifting cultivation where fallow periods are too short; unsustainable logging; urban and industrial expansion; and overgrazing and fodder collection.
FAO's activities related to forest genetic resources are guided by a Panel of Experts on Forest Gene Resources, established 25 years ago. This panel sets up priorities in FAO's programmes and activities for the conservation and sustainable management of forest genetic resources.
FAO's Forest Resources Assessment focused mainly on documenting resources and trends in natural forests, woodlands and forest plantations in the world. It also briefly addressed the potential impacts of fragmentation on biological diversity. The Tropical Forest Action Programme is aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of tropical forest resources, contributing to development and poverty alleviation.
Aquatic biodiversity is threatened primarily by environmental degradation and mismanagement of both the living resources and the ecosystems that support them. Loss of habitats, over-exploitation and introduction of exotic species are the prime hazards.
One response to the growing demand of fishery resources has been the development of aquaculture, which provides effective management, selection and conservation of aquatic biological/genetic resources, contributing significantly to increased productivity and sustainable production. On the other hand, this rapidly expanding source of food poses some threats to biodiversity by concentrating on a very small range of species and an equally narrow genetic base in these species.
FAO supports comprehensive programmes on fisheries management, focusing on both coastal zones and high seas. It is also committed to international efforts to introduce ecologically safe fishery technologies. FAO provides technical assistance aimed at environmentally sound aquaculture practices, as well as incorporating aquaculture in rural development planning. To conserve aquatic biodiversity, the Organization emphasises the sustainable use of aquatic resources. Activities include genetic selection programmes in aquaculture, the elaboration of codes of practice for the introduction and transfer of aquatic organisms, and on access to genetic resources and biotechnology.
An International Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries has been formulated within the context of sustainable utilization of fishery resources in harmony with the environment, and the use of capture and aquaculture practices that are not harmful to ecosystems. It was submitted to the Twenty-eighth Session of FAO Conference in 1995 for final approval.