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Genetic diversity a hidden tool in coping with climate change
Wednesday, 2015/01/21 | 08:11:34

Raw material of food systems are key to helping agriculture adapt to volatile weather and rising temperatures

FAO http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/275041/icode/

 

A crop of sorghum in Uruguay, funded by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic resources for Food and Agriculture.

 

19 January 2015, Rome - Genetic resources have a critical role to play in feeding the world — especially as climate change advances faster than expected — and much more needs to be done to study, preserve and utilize the biological diversity that underpins world food production, according to a new book released by FAO today.

 

"Time is not on our side" warns the book, Coping with climate change: the roles of genetic resources for food and agriculture. "In the coming decades, millions of people whose livelihoods and food security depend on farming, aquaculture, fishing, forestry and livestock keeping are likely to face unprecedented climatic conditions."

 

Crops, livestock, forest trees and aquatic organisms capable of surviving and producing in a changing climate will be needed.

 

The ability of plants and animals raised by farmers to withstand volatile conditions and adapt when the environment changes is a direct result of their genetic diversity, but stronger efforts to study and use that diversity as a coping mechanism — and policies to support that — are required, the book argues.

 

"In a warmer world with harsher, more variable weather, plants and animals raised for food will need to have the biological capacity to adapt more quickly than ever before," said FAO Deputy Director-General Maria Helena Semedo.

 

"Preventing further losses of agricultural genetic resources and diverting more attention to studying them and their potential will boost humankind's ability to adapt to climate change," she added.

 

 Such an adaptive approach will require updating the goals of agricultural breeding programmes — and in some cases introducing varieties, breeds, species, that have not been previously raised.

 

And improvements to field-based and off-site conservation programmes for domesticated species, their wild relatives and other wild genetic resources important for food and agriculture — along with policies that promote their sustainable use — are "urgently" needed.

 

Building our knowledge of genetic resources for food and agriculture - where they are found, what characteristics they have (e.g. resistance to drought or disease) and how they can best be managed is also critical, the book says.

 

In particular, improving knowledge, conservation and use of crop wild relatives is important — they are likely to have genetic traits that can be used to develop well-adapted crops for use in climate change-affected food systems.

 

"We need to strengthen the role of genetic resources and help farmers, fishers and foresters cope with climate change," says Linda Collette, lead editor of the volume and Secretary of FAO's Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which starts its biennial meeting today.

 

Many locally adapted varieties and breeds of crops and livestock — as well as trees, fish, insects and micro-organisms — are poorly documented and may be lost before their potential roles in climate change adaptation are recognized.

 

Efforts should be made to avoid practices that destroy biodiversity or undermine the health of agricultural ecosystems — for instance the use of broad-spectrum insecticides that impact pollinators.

 

Guidelines point the way

 

The commission will also consider the adoption of guidelines for the integration of genetic resources into climate change adaptation plans, developed by FAO taking into account UNFCCC's current guidance. The draft guidelines argue for an increased and explicit use of genetic resources as a part of overall adaptation measures needed to assure food security — in recognition to the critical role that genetic diversity must play there.

 

The guidelines contain a range of recommendations aimed at helping countries implement policies and strategies for studying, preserving, and utilizing genetic resources to adapt to climate change.

 

They aim to support governments' use of genetic resources — ranging from seed varieties of major staple crops to the millions of microbes living in the soil, an area where expertise is relatively thin — in their national plans for coping with climate change.

 

Helping evolution survive

 

FAO stresses that boosting conservation of genetic diversity on farms and in fields is as critical as maintaining gene banks.

 

Many life-forms used in agriculture don't have the equivalent of seeds and can only be maintained through human intervention — one example is the banana, a vital staple for millions.

 

Additionally, on-site (in situ) conservation — including that of crop wild relatives — is a way of "allowing evolution to continue" and thus permit the continued generation of adaptive traits.

In situ conservation can take many forms but closely involving farmers is particularly effective, especially as it is increasingly clear that the consequences of climate change need to be considered at local levels as well as at global or regional ones.

 

Ethiopia, home to many microclimates, has an advanced and decentralized scheme based on community seed and gene banks through which farmers and researchers cooperate to test, adopt and conserve landraces of the most important crops — teff, barley, chickpea, sorghum and faba beans — that were nearly lost during the 1980s drought.

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