Genetic Diversity Key to Agricultural, Forestry Transitions

Our world food production relies heavily on a small number of prime crops such as rice, maize and cereals. Agriculture and livestock production have become larger-scale, more intensive and more specialised, with a limited number of high-yielding breeds and varieties being widely used. And also the genetic diversity in our forests is limited. Both our agriculture and forests would benefit from more diversity given climate change, biodiversity loss and the threat of diseases and pests. Scientists, breeders, forest managers, NGOs and policymakers gathered in Wageningen on 15 March 2023 to share their insights on this issue.

"Biodiversity for food and agriculture is caving in. Species are disappearing, ecosystems are degrading, genetic diversity within species, both within wild species and the domesticated species we use, is declining. Our landscape is becoming increasingly uniform, endemic species are being supplanted by exotics, and pesticides are polluting soil and water. This makes our food production vulnerable to diseases, pests and climate change." The words of Irene Hoffmann, secretary of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, do not lie: action is needed.

Sipke Joost Hiemstra, head of the CGN, stresses, "To secure genetic diversity for future use, we should not just store it in gene banks. If you want the unique characteristics of crops, trees and animal breeds to persist, you also have to continue to use and actively exploit them in today's agriculture and forestry."

Leaps in practice and policy

Fortunately, there is also good news: not only is the number of biodiversity-friendly practices in agriculture and livestock production increasing, considerable strides are also being made at the policy level. For instance, there is the FAO's Framework for Action on Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture, with associated Global Plans of Action for plants, animals, trees and aquaculture species. And also the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) has 14 targets directly or indirectly linked to agri-food sectors.

"However, a lot still needs to be done," Hoffmann said. "Achieving all those action plans and goals requires innovation and cooperation on a global, but also local scale. In doing so, good and practical agreements must be made so that yields from the use of genetic resources are shared equitably worldwide and so that biodiversity can be preserved."

Better seeds for small-scale tropical farmers

Rutger Groot, chairman of the Knowledge Transfer foundation of East West Seed (EWS), talks about their work to breed food crops and make the improved seed available to farmers, especially in tropical countries. This improves crop yields, climate resilience and food security. At the same time, EWS also transfers knowledge and preserves improved crops in its own gene bank, while collaborating with public gene banks.

Groot says: "With global nutrition security and climate change urgently needing accelerated plant breeding, quick and easy access to genetic resources is required." He adds, "The tricky thing is though, that the regulation around access and benefit sharing creates many practical barriers for commercial plant breeders. It is almost impossible to keep checking the provenance and permissions of every seed every time you re-use it in something. It causes huge delays, and we don't have that time."

Future-proof forests

There is also a lot of work being done in the field of forestry to conserve and manage genetic resources, for example by protecting native tree species in their natural landscape. Hank Bartelink, Director of LandschappenNL: "We face a big task, because the Netherlands is one of the worst kids in the class when it comes to protecting habitats and species." To turn the tide, planting more trees is one of the most effective measures. "We need to plant more than 160 million trees to start meeting the goals of CO2 sequestration and natural cover in the Netherlands."

But what kind of planting material is the most suitable? "This is where the List of Varieties of Trees comes in handy. It shows you exactly which tree species suits your purpose and where the plant material comes from." The List of Varieties also includes native tree species and tree species that will be needed to adapt to climate change. "We need to make our forests stronger for the future and there should be more focus on knowledge transfer to forest managers," says Bartelink.

Genetic Diversity event

There was no shortage of willingness to take action and be involved: over 150 participants from a variety of organisations from different countries and sectors visited Wageningen to share knowledge, make contacts and engage in dialogue on genetic resources. "The active and enthusiastic participation in the workshops shows how important the topic is to people. We have picked up many new ideas and received plenty of feedback on our CGN strategy. I am very happy with the positive feedback from everyone who contributed to this event," Hiemstra said.

Watch the aftermovie of the event on 15 March 2023:

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