The government of Norway has invested US $23.7 million to conserve and sustainably manage the world’s most important food crops to help farmers cope with the effects of climate change and population increase.
The Norwegian government says there is the need for crop diversity at a time when populations are soaring and climate change is threatening staples like rice and maize.
“In just ten years we will have a billion more people at the global dinner table, but during that same time we could see climate change diminish rice production by ten percent with a one degree increase in temperature,” said Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
“Our best hedge against disaster is to make sure we have a wide array of food crops at our disposal to keep harvests healthy in the bread baskets of the world.”
The announcement of the new investment in crop diversity came at the opening of the fifth session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
The meeting has drawn more than 450 participants from governments, science and civil society to Muscat, Oman, where they are discussing plans for sharing food crop varieties among famers and plant breeders around the world and the Treaty activities over the next two years.
The Norwegian investment, to be channelled through an endowment being raised by the Crop Trust and through the Benefit-sharing fund of the Treaty, is intended to facilitate greater collaboration internationally in the collecting, conserving and utilising of seeds and plants. It adds to recent contributions from Italy and the European Union to help carry-out the Treaty’s mission and a recent contribution by the United States to help fulfil the Crop Trust’s endowment.
The Treaty is intended to help ensure farmers and researchers have access to a large diversity of seeds and other plant genetic material to address a variety of risks, including those caused by extreme weather and plant pests and diseases—all of which could become more commonplace as climate change alters growing conditions. For example, a trait that’s needed to ensure maize can continue to be productive as temperatures rise in Kenya might lie in a variety only found in Mexico.
“For farmers to adapt to climate change, we need to make sure we preserve every known variety of crops like rice, maize, wheat, potatoes, along with those of less familiar crops like sorghum and cassava,” Haga said. “And we need to preserve their wild relatives as well.”
The world’s crop diversity is conserved in farmers’ fields, which is called “in-situ” conservation, and in genebanks, which is known as “ex-situ” conservation. But diversity has dwindled as farmers have steadily cultivated a narrower band of crop varieties and genebanks have suffered from insufficient funding. Meanwhile, a recent study of the 29 most important food crops revealed severe threats to just over half of their wild relatives—species that can hold valuable traits for plant breeders.
The Crop Trust and the International Treaty are close partners in efforts to conserve and manage crop diversity. The Treaty’s Benefit-sharing Fund is focused mainly on in-situ conservation while the Crop Trust has concentrated on ex-situ conservation.
“The Benefit-sharing Fund started 5 years ago but it’s already had activities in 31 countries,” said Dr Shakeel Bhatti, Secretary of the Treaty.
“Treaty-supported projects are helping farmers use crop diversity to adapt to the effects of climate change. To give one example, there are efforts underway in several countries to test and disseminate drought tolerant crop varieties, including varieties developed with genetic material from wild relatives and from samples stored in crop genebanks. At the same time, we seek to integrate lessons learned from such projects into national plans for ensuring farmers are prepared for climate change”.
According to Dr Bhatti, “the challenge in the coming years is to ensure long term conservation of important crops while at the same time strengthening the capacity of farmers and researchers to utilize these irreplaceable resources”.
The Global Crop Diversity Trust is an independent international organisation with a vision to secure forever the basis of a diverse and sustainable agriculture to support food security and alleviate poverty.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is the international agreement that governs the conservation and use of crop genetic resources. Its aims are sustainable agriculture and food security as well as the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources.
By Samuel Hinneh