In a report launched today at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, Professor Jeff Waage, head of the department, warns that many genebanks are now unable to fulfil basic conservation functions, putting at risk the crop diversity that underpins stable and sustainable food supply.
The report, Crop diversity at risk: the case for sustaining crop collections, provides the latest picture of genebank performance. It compares data from 99 countries collected by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2000 to similar data from 151 governments collected by the FAO in 1996.
It has found that although the number of plant samples held in crop diversity collections has increased in 66 per cent of countries, genebank budgets have been cut back in 25 per cent of countries and remained static in another 35 per cent.
Samples held in genebanks must be periodically planted and new seed harvested in order to keep stock viable, and a backlog in this regeneration process is a strong indication of critical under-resourcing. Researchers found that over a half of developing countries and 27 per cent of developed countries have reported an increase in the number of plant samples in urgent need of regeneration.
Professor Waage says: "Most people assume the crop diversity that scientists have already collected from cultivated fields is safe. We found that this is not necessarily the case. In fact, many critical genebank collections are in a precarious state. If these collections are allowed to fail, then we will lose the valuable crop diversity they contain forever."
In order to safeguard future crop diversity, the report calls for the establishment of a permanent international endowment, funded by public and private sources, to support the maintenance of the world's most critical collections. Professor Waage explains:
"The data points us to one major conclusion: genebanks can no longer rely on uncertain annual sources of funding - as most do now - to fulfil their perpetual responsibility for maintaining the diversity of plants that are essential for food security."
Genebanks hold a significant portion of the world's agricultural heritage and provide the last sanctuary for a growing number of crop wild relatives. These include the tomato and cassava (a starchy root crop that is a staple food in parts of Africa and Asia), whose wild relatives are approaching extinction due to deforestation and development. Wild species of coffee, grape and wheat also join the list of wild crop relatives facing genetic erosion - the process that can lead to extinction.
On-farm losses are also great as farmers give up traditional crop varieties in favour of high-yielding modern types. The UN FAO estimates that about three-quarters of the original varieties of agricultural crops have been lost from farm fields since 1900. Such losses include wheat varieties in China, maize in Mexico and soybean in the United States.
The wheat species Triticum monococcum gives an example of the vital role genebanks can play. Although widely grown for bread throughout the ancient Roman Empire, it is now almost lost, with relic populations existing only in Turkey and possibly Yemen. However, because of its high fibre content, T. monococcum is again in demand and a project has been established to bring back this crop using samples stored in genebanks.
"Both on-farm diversity and wild crop relatives are sources of rare genetic traits needed for coping with environmental stress, plant disease and pests," comments Professor Waage. "Knowing this, countries have undertaken important efforts to expand their crop diversity collections. A main task now is to ensure the safety of those collections and their accessibility to farmers, plant breeders and researchers."
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Notes to editors:
Crop diversity at risk: a survey of the world's crop collection will be released at a press conference held at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development at the IUCN Environment Centre Atrium, Nedcor Offices, Sandton, Johannesburg. For further information on this event, contact Ellen Wilson on +27 72 511 9876 or Vic Sutton on +27 83 260 4533.
Imperial College's Department of Agricultural Sciences (formerly Wye College) has a long tradition of research on plant genetic resource conservation and currently provides scientific management on behalf of DEFRA of the UK National Fruit Collection, the largest collection of tree fruit germplasm in the world. Researchers in the department are actively involved in the European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources Networks.
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