New tool to help local crop varieties flourish

FAO publishes Voluntary Guidelines for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Farmers Varieties/Landraces

14 November 2019, Rome - The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations today published new guidelines aimed at assuring crop diversity and farmers' resilience to plant genetic resource loss.

The Voluntary Guidelines for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Farmers Varieties/Landraces are a valuable aid to countries in developing national plans to conserve these critical crop resources.

Farmers' varieties and landraces are populations of a cultivated crop that are often genetically diverse  with high local adaptation to the growing environment. They are associated with a set of indigenous knowledge regarding farmers' practices of seed selection and field management. The dynamic management of farmers' varieties/landraces, including their exposure to different production regimes, environments, farmers' selection and seed preservation and exchange systems, maintains a reservoir of continuously evolving genetic variability. They often have preferred agronomic or culinary qualities or relate to locally important cultural values and make an important contribution to food and nutrition security, rural livelihoods, coping with climate change and even human survival.

While landraces often have not undergone formal crop improvement procedures, many adaptive traits of farmers' varieties and landraces have arisen through repeated grower selection.  They are recognized with local names and closely associated with the traditional uses, knowledge, habits, dialects and celebrations of the people who developed and continue to grow them. Yet vast numbers of these crop types are being lost or abandoned, posing a risk for future sustainable food systems.

Today's food systems are characterized by an  "ever-increasing uniformity of crops and varieties on farm", says Bukar Tijani, FAO Assistant Director-General, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department. Tijani adds that "to be sustainable, farmers must grow the most genetically diverse set of crops and varieties that are suited to their agroecologies, production systems and end-users' preferences".

Furthermore, Tijani added that, local varieties/landraces are the main source of benchmarking the testing of other promising new varieties. Such practices not only support traditional food uses but also boost resilience and coping power in the face of plant pests and diseases and climate change.

A systematic approach

The new voluntary guidelines were launched at a side event of the Eight Session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Rome. They complement the Voluntary Guidelines for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Crop Wild Relatives and Wild Food Plants published last year.

Recommended actions range from identifying and documenting existing plant genetic resources for agriculture, mapping their actual and potential uses, promoting their retention, and providing farmers and local communities with information and support in relation to their conservation and sustainable use - all in alignment with national contexts and priorities.

The importance of establishing a systematic approach to these on-farm activities has been recognized by international organizations and instruments including the Convention on Biological Diversity, the  International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and the Second Global Plan of Action for PGRFA. These new voluntary guidelines are the first of their kind to outline such an approach.

Photo: ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano
A farmer in Afghanistan.