On the 27th September 2022, on the invitation of the Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust), scientists, specialists and politicians met in Bonn/Germany to discuss the challenges at the interface of food security and crop diversity. According to Joachim von Braun, Professor for economic and technological change and member of the Executive Board of the Crop Trust, it is well-established that our food systems are under pressure. For some years now, numbers of people going hungry have been on the increase. The reasons for this are the multiple crises which have gripped the world: the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, wars and conflicts, but also the rising cost of energy or the over-indebtedness of countries and the destruction of nature. This was why, in 2021, 3.1 billion people world-wide were unable to afford healthy food. And this figure is set to rise in 2022.
The three cultivated plants wheat, maize and rice account for more than 60 per cent of world-wide food supplies. And yet there are so many other options. Numerous cultivated plants which are often overlooked or neglected could enrich the menus of many people and ensure a healthier and more diversified diet. There are unused varieties which are better adapted to climate change and are hence resistant to heat, dry conditions and, in some cases, even pests. This also helps them to provide higher yields in extreme conditions, they can often be better stored and processed, and they demonstrate higher nutrient density. It is important to resolve the paradox that especially the smallholders in the countries of the Global South are the ones producing food and simultaneously being affected by hunger. Here, in addition to other factors, rediscovered and newly developed species can help overcome poverty and hunger.
Furthermore, old cultivated plants are very variable genetically, which makes them so resilient. In contrast, modern high-yield varieties are very homogeneous genetically. The modern varieties are clearly part of the achievements attained by industrialised agriculture, which has promoted prosperity and development in many parts of the world. But in addition to climate change, which is currently nullifying this success, the flipside of the coin which is becoming obvious is the loss of species themselves and, within species, the decline in genetic diversity, because only a few varieties are now being cultivated on a large scale. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that between 1900 and 2000, around 75 per cent of crop diversity has gone lost. With every bit of rainforest which is clear-cut, with grasslands which are degraded or with natural landscapes which have to make room for urbanisation, a further multitude of species in the wild are lost. This world-wide loss of species and varieties is immense, and represents a challenge. According to Crop Trust Executive Director Stefan Schmitz, their conservation is a life insurance policy for humanity.
In order to maintain diversity, genebanks have been set up which conserve as many species as possible. There are a total of 1,750 such genebanks, and together, they contain around 7.4 million samples of different plants. Alone in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault , duplicates of more than a million seed varieties from nearly all countries throughout the world have been stored. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a global seed repository in Spitzbergen which is run by the Crop Trust together with the Norwegian Government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen). The example of Syria shows just how important this vault is. There, a seed bank containing a large number of cultivated plants was destroyed during bombing raids. But fortunately, duplicates had been stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and thus, these rare species have not gone lost for ever.
This is why the security of the seed banks was a demand raised by experts at Crop Diversity Day. For many of these seed banks are located in the Global South and are chronically underfinanced. They are threatened by a wide range of disasters, as the example of Syria demonstrates, and require support. And what is more, they need to be linked to the genebanks, the experts maintain, arguing that this is the only way to ensure that an optimum number of different species and corresponding duplicates can be secured world-wide. They add that these species have to be made available to as many farmers, plant breeders and researchers as possible. Many unused natural resources lie dormant in the seed banks, which is why research has to be intensified and varieties must be reactivated or newly bred. For this purpose, sufficient financing has to be provided, also at multilateral level, in order to promote research and development. There are still many countries which are hardly investing in research and development. A lot still remains to be done, especially when it comes to ensuring a fair sharing of advantages offered by the use of plant diversity and the data referring to it.
And finally, it is essential for people across the world to change their behaviour as consumers. At the moment, world-wide, unhealthy food is much cheaper compared to healthy food. So a healthy diet is a question of money. And then there are the continuingly too high levels of meat consumption in many countries. Cultivated plants which have been rediscovered, bred from old varieties and bear a high protein level can also play a key role here in moving to more plant-based nutrition. Thus the circle would close, for if there is consumer demand for more diversified plant food, then producers can provide more sustainable and healthier plant food.
Making food systems more resilient is a global challenge. According to Stefan Schmitz, the conservation of crop diversity presents an opportunity to make a major contribution to this end and get millions of people out of poverty.
Author: Patricia Summa, editor, Rural 21
The Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust) is an international non-profit organisation campaigning for the lasting conservation and world-wide use of crop plant diversity. The Crop Trust supports the maintaining of the most important collections of plant-genetic resources in seed banks as well as the global availability of these natural resources, and it provides information and technical support relating to these issues.