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).
“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.