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Seed conservation still vital to preserve food resources

Svalbard seed vault is apex of a global network to protecting plant genetic resources for food and ag.

The "Doomsday Vault," storing the seeds of vital crops in an underground vault near Svalbard, Norway, will celebrate its 10th anniversary soon, drawing attention to the importance of conserving seeds that are vital for food and agriculture, according to the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO).

It was the adoption of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture in 2001 that gave Norway's government the impetus to proceed with the establishment of the seed vault. The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture welcomed and supported the initiative in 2004.

The resources and attention given to Svalbard, now the iconic home to seeds of around 1 million unique plants, is positive, FAO said. While farmers have bred crops for millennia, the emphasis on conservation of crop diversity ex situ is historically linked to Nikolai Vavilov, who set up one of the first gene banks in Russia in 1921. In a quest to end all famines, the botanist traveled to more than 60 countries, listening to farmers and collecting seeds with an eye to their potential to contribute to hardier crops in a changing world, FAO said.

Accessions from gene banks that were subsequently established have been used to breed crop varieties that are better suited for food production, such as those that proved resistant to rust diseases that can decimate wheat and maize harvests and to produce rice varieties able to withstand salty soils, inject new resilience in highly domesticated crops and contribute to innovations that changing climate conditions may require, such as faster maturation or drought tolerance, FAO explained.

Into the wild

While focus on conservation in gene banks is necessary, many of the genetic resources needed to underwrite sustainable food systems are found on farm in the form of farmers' varieties and landraces and also in nature as crop wild relatives.

Consider the sunflower, which is native to North America, where samples of 53 species of sunflower wild relatives have been collected and stored. Varieties with elevated oil content were developed in Russia, followed by significant improvements driven by a French scientist who tapped genetic quirks in a wild prairie sunflower, and today the crop is grown in more than 70 countries and accounts for annual revenue of $20 billion.

Wild plants -- notably those related to edible mainstays -- are increasingly under threat and warrant increased efforts for their conservation and utilization, FAO said, noting that these plants are rarely part of intense crop improvement programs. Yet, experts know they often provide interesting traits that can work wonders on crops.

That's why researchers scour central Asia in search of apple varieties, Papua New Guinea for sugarcane and are excited to have found a wild banana in Southeast Asia that may help propagate resistance to a deadly fungus that is decimating the popular Cavendish variety.

FAO said researchers have recently discovered previously unknown information on the genetic history of the wild relatives of cultivated chickpea, offering promising potential for a popular pulse food for which improvement has been hampered by an extreme lack of genetic diversity.

Many locally important food crops grow in parts of the world facing rapid change and high levels of food insecurity. To help countries in the daunting task of protecting the species relevant to their food supply in their natural habitats where they would continue to evolve important traits for adaptation to changes, FAO recently published "Voluntary Guidelines for the Conservation & Sustainable Use of Crop Wild Relatives & Wild Food Plants."

"Crop wild relatives have saved our skins many times and may become stars in our climate change toolkit," said Chikelu Mba, a plant geneticist and leader of the FAO seeds and genetic resources team.

Setting up protected areas is a key step. "Many countries, in fact, have them, and there is a potential to combine (crop wild relative) conservation with nature conservation, but few know what is inside them," Mba noted.

Conservation efforts need to be accelerated now as climate change, urbanization and shifting land use patterns all pose increasingly imminent threats to the survival of many of these relatively unsung species, FAO said.

"The diversity of both crop wild relatives and wild food plants are being continuously eroded, and many could become extinct if the current level of neglect is not checked," said Ren Wang, FAO assistant director-general, Agriculture & Consumer Protection Department.

Wild crop relatives tend to be most diverse and prolific in a food crop's ancestral center of origin — the potato in the Andes or sugarcane in Asia, for example — and also in secondary diversity zones such as the Mediterranean for the tomato and sub-Saharan Africa for cassava. That helps in choosing appropriate locations for conservation areas.

Bolstering public support for such initiatives is easier if they are shown to "benefit humans in a tangible manner," said Hans Dreyer, director of FAO's Plant Production & Protection Division. "Conservation and sustainable use go hand in hand."

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