By Sophie Wenzlau
Earlier this week, the government of Norway pledged US$23.7 million to conserve and sustainably manage some of the world’s most important food crops, citing the critical need for crop diversity at a time when populations are soaring and climate change is threatening staples like rice and maize, according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT).
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault harbors nearly three-quarters of a million seed samples from around the world. (Photo Credit: GCDT)
“In just 10 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 10 percent with a one-degree increase in temperature,” said Marie Haga, executive director of the GCDT. “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.”
Crop diversity, which is conserved in farmers’ fields and genebanks around the world, has dwindled as farmers have steadily cultivated a narrower range of crop varieties and as genebanks have suffered from insufficient funding. Meanwhile, a recent study of the 29 most important food crops revealed severe threats to over half of their wild relatives—species that can hold valuable traits for plant breeders.
Worldwide, agriculture depends on a relatively small number of crops; only about 150 are used on a significant scale. Individual crops, such as the 20,000 varieties of wheat, have different traits for drought or heat tolerance, nutritional quality, disease resistance, and other characteristics. Today, much of the world’s crop diversity is neither safely conserved nor readily available to scientists and farmers who rely on it to safeguard agricultural productivity, according to the GCDT. Limited crop diversity could prove dangerous in the context of climate change, as extreme and unpredictable weather events place unprecedented pressures on our ability to grow the food we need. Diversity is being lost, according to the GCDT, and with it the biological basis of our food supply.
The announcement of Norway’s 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 drew more than 450 participants from governments, science, and civil society to Muscat, Oman, where they discussed plans for sharing food crop varieties among farmers and plant breeders around the world.
The Treaty is intended to help ensure that 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 is needed to ensure that maize can continue to be productive as temperatures rise in Kenya might lie in a variety found only 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 Norwegian investment is intended to facilitate greater collaboration internationally in the collection, conservation, and utilization of seeds and plants.
Even prior to the announcement, Scandinavians have been recognized as vanguards of global crop diversity. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, buried deep in a mountainside nearly 1,000 kilometers off the northern coast of Norway, harbors nearly three-quarters of a million seed samples from around the world. The vault serves as backup to living crop diversity collections housed in genebanks around the world and is designed to protect seed varieties from both natural and manmade disasters.
Cary Fowler, former executive director of the GCDT, argues: “Our crop diversity is constantly under threat, from dramatic dangers such as fires, political unrest, war and tornadoes, as well as the mundane, such as failing refrigeration systems and budget cuts. But these seeds are the future of our food supply, as they carry genetic treasures such as heat resistance, drought tolerance, or disease and pest resistance.”
Norway’s investment in crop diversity is a notable attempt to adapt agricultural production to climate change; other countries would be wise to follow suit.
Sophie Wenzlau is a Senior Fellow with the Worldwatch Institute.