The global biodiversity crisis usually conjures images of starving polar bears in an iceless Arctic. Sometimes we think about the plight of the pollinators, without whom much of our food and plant-based biodiversity would be imperiled. But the diversity loss extends to our food in another way: the genetic diversity that underpins our food security.
Much of the loss in this realm of overlooked biodiversity has to do with the lack of variety in the global diet. Only a handful of crops - such as maize, rice, wheat - provide an oversized portion of calories even though there are thousands of edible plants. Take, for example, the banana. Unless you live in the tropics, food consumers probably only see one very uniform type in supermarkets (the Cavendish), when there are dozens of edible varieties and countless more wild relatives.
The status of plant genetic diversity is thoroughly covered in a new book edited by Ehsan Dulloo, a scientist at the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. Plant genetic resources: A review of current research and future needs provides a comprehensive review that will be extremely valuable to researchers, practitioners and university students in the field of agriculture and natural resources.
"Plant genetic resources represent the foundation of our agriculture and our food system and this basic fact is not always appreciated and supported by countries and funders," said Dulloo. "After more than 30 years of active work in the area of plant genetic resources conservation, the greater part working for Bioversity International, I felt the need to make a review of our state of knowledge of the different aspect of PGR work, bringing together the contribution of a number of key international PGR experts in this collection."
Published by Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing - an award-winning publisher of agricultural science content - on March 23, Dulloo says the book is unique in that the authors challenge some of the topics and key issues and challenges facing the conservation of plant genetic resources. Dulloo points to a chapter by Paula Bramel, the former director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which supports the famous Svalbard Global Seed Vault. In it, Bramel discusses the complex multilateral system of gene banks and their interdependence. She also discusses some difficulties faced by running routine operations in regional and national gene banks.
The book's publication is timely. The United Nations' Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which missed conservation targets for 2020 that it set ten years earlier, is currently refining goals for 2030. Researchers at the Alliance are working with the CBD to expressly include plant genetic resources in their new targets, while at the same time helping to make these targets achievable.
"The failure to adequately stem the loss of biodiversity has significant implications not only for the environment but also for human wellbeing, even survival," writes Geoffrey Hawtin, the founding CEO of Founding CEO, Global Crop Diversity Trust.
"No room for complacency"
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, almost 700 million people around the globe were going hungry. This reversed many years of advances toward reducing hunger. Climate change, rising inequality and a continually growing population make further increases in hunger a possibility in the years to come as well.
In his introduction to the book, Hawtin notes that crop genetic diversity provides a basis for making significant steps toward improving the lives and wellbeing of humanity as well as the environment.
"The genetic resources of our crops underpin our ability to breed new cultivars that can help make agriculture more sustainable and productive within a rapidly changing world. Such cultivars could, for example, provide more nutritious food, novel products, be more resilient to pests, disease and environmental stresses, or have the ability to sequester more carbon," said Hawkin.
Making this happen will require urgent action to conserve crop diversity both on farms and in the wild (in situ) and in gene banks (ex situ). Many neglected and underused species and their relatives are threatened by habitat loss and many farmers no longer use traditional landraces, preferring instead new varieties developed by major seed producers. Finding a balance between the two, however, is possible, given the right set of circumstances and incentives, as is the case with a successful long-running program in Peru.
"[T]he situation is highly complex, and the news is not all bad, especially for those crops for which past conservation efforts are paying off handsomely," said Hawtin. "Although a great deal remains to be done, many countries are expanding the range of genetic resources that they conserve ex situ and many farmers who have adopted modern varieties also continue to maintain traditional landraces.
"But there is no room for complacency and the situation for crop wild relatives is even more concerning. This is particularly so in regions experiencing severe climate change and widespread degradation of habitats."
Copies of Plant genetic resources: A review of current research and future needs can be obtained from Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing Limited in print and digital formats costing: £160/$210/€190/C$270 from https://bdspublishing.com
Video: Dr. Ehsan Dulloo introduces the book