Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Genetic resources for Climate-Smart Agriculture Production

Production and Resources

Genetic resources for food and agriculture

Genetic resources for food and agriculture (referred to in this module as genetic resources) are the basis for sustainable agriculture and food security. These resources are essential for food, nutrition, energy and shelter. They also sustain ecosystems services in all agricultural production systems, and support critical functions, such as pollination, soil formation and pest and disease control.

Genetic diversity determines the range of characteristics that enable plants, animals and micro-organisms to fulfil different roles in agricultural production systems and adapt to changing environmental conditions, such as extreme temperatures, drought, flooding and outbreaks of pests and diseases. This diversity also shapes the way in which plants and animals make use of inputs and resources, such as fertilizer, water and feed.

Centuries of selection and domestication by farmers, pastoralists and breeders, combined with natural selection, have led to the development of many diverse varieties, breeds, stocks and strains. Over the generations, this rich diversity has allowed people to obtain food and sustain their livelihoods in difficult environments and under extreme climatic conditions. This diversity also provides materials that can be used by breeding programmes to ensure plant and animal populations can adapt to future conditions – conditions that will be influenced by the impacts of climate change and by the shifting demands of human societies.

However, genetic diversity is being lost. The main causes of genetic erosion are intensive agricultural production systems that uses fewer and more genetically uniform crop varieties and animal breeds (see Chapter B1 - 1.1), changing consumer demands, changes in land use, excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers, invasive alien species and climate change.

Climate change poses risks to genetic resources and creates obstacles to their sustainable management (FAO, 2016a). These threats and challenges can be associated with gradual changes, such as increasing temperatures, and with the increasing incidence of abrupt and catastrophic events, such as extreme weather events and outbreaks of pests and diseases. Climate change is expected to alter the distribution of species, population sizes, the composition of ecological communities, the timing of biological events, and the behaviours of different species and their interactions. Extreme events may lead to the sudden extinction of small, spatially limited populations. 

Genetic resources and their diversity are essential to climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts. For example, genetic resources play a key role in carbon sequestration, particularly in aquatic ecosystems, natural and planted forests (see module B3 on climate-smart forestry and module B5 on agroforestry) and soils (see Box B7.3).

Specifically adapted genetic resources may offer unique opportunities to adapt to environmental and climatic changes. To contribute to climate-smart agriculture, these resources must be managed in a sustainable way. The main components of genetic resource management are characterization,v evaluation,vi inventory,vii monitoring,viii sustainable use and conservationix.

A strong political and institutional framework enables relevant stakeholders at local, national and international levels to address the challenges posed by climate change. The FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture promotes the conservation of genetic resources and their sustainable use for climate change adaptation and mitigation (Box B8.1).

Box B8.1 The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

The FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is the only permanent intergovernmental forum for the discussion and negotiation of matters relevant to all components of biological diversity for food and agriculture. One of its outputs, the Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Integration of Genetic Diversity into National Climate Change Adaptation Planning (FAO, 2015a), promotes the use of genetic resources for food and agriculture in climate change adaptation, and supports their integration into national climate change adaptation planning. The Commission also oversees the development of global plans of actions for the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources (FAO, 2007, 2011a, 2014).