CONSERVING and making the most of the planet's wealth of genetic resources will be crucial for survival because people will need to produce sufficient and nutritious food for a growing population, U.N. Food & Agriculture (FAO) deputy director-general Dan Gustafson said April 15 while addressing the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture.
The commission, the only intergovernmental body to specifically address all matters related to the world's gene pool for food and agriculture, marked its 30th anniversary and met last week in Rome, Italy.
"FAO believes that adaptation of the agriculture sector is not merely an option but an imperative for human survival, and genetic resources will form an essential part of any adaptation strategy," Gustafson said. "Ensuring food security in the face of climate change is among the most daunting challenges facing humankind."
Plants account for more than 80% of the human diet. Some 30 crops account for 95% of human food energy needs, and just five of them -- rice, wheat, corn, millet and sorghum -- provide 60% of energy needs, FAO said. More than 7,000 plant species have been gathered and cultivated since people first learned to do so many millennia ago. There are as many as 30,000 edible terrestrial plant species in the world.
"Climate change impacts are expected to reduce agricultural productivity, stability and incomes in many areas that already experience high levels of food insecurity, yet world agricultural production must increase 60% by the middle of this century -- fewer than 40 years from now -- to keep pace with the food requirements of the world's growing population," Gustafson said.
"Genetic resources for food and agriculture play a crucial role in food security, secure livelihoods and environmental services. They also play a crucial role in enabling crops, livestock, aquatic organisms and forest trees to withstand climate change-related conditions," he added.
The commission will be considering a "Roadmap on Climate Change & Genetic Resources" for an initial phase through 2017.
FAO said activities in the roadmap include raising awareness, developing guidelines on how to integrate genetic resources for food and agriculture into adaptation planning, identifying hotspots where biodiversity is under particular threat from climate change and developing an action plan to conserve crops' wild relatives from the threat of extinction.
While the commission has made more advances in plant and animal genetic resources, FAO is also making significant progress in addressing the genetic resources of forests, aquatic life, microorganisms and invertebrates, reflecting the broadened mandate of the commission since 1995.
For example, FAO explained that bacteria are essential for yogurt and cheese production, earthworms churn soil and break down organic matter into essential nutrients and pollinators such as the honeybee enable 35% of the world's crops to reproduce.
FAO estimated that in the last century, about 75% of crop genetic diversity was lost as farmers worldwide switched to genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties and abandoned multiple local varieties.
However, the global agency said having recourse to genetic material is essential to adapt and improve agriculture in the face of threats such as diseases or climate warming that can alter growing conditions.
For example, a variety of Turkish wheat that was collected and stored in a seed gene bank in 1948 was rediscovered in the 1980s, when it was found to carry genes for resistance to many types of disease-causing fungi. Plant breeders now use those genes to develop wheat varieties that are resistant to a range of diseases.
According to the most recent FAO data, 22% of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction. However, the local breeds that are least understood often carry genetic defenses that enable them to walk long distances to watering holes, survive with reduced water and fodder intake or fight off tropical diseases.