In the run-up to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, France, the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) released new guidelines to assist countries in better conserving and sustainably using genetic resources in times of climate change.
The "Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Integration of Genetic Diversity into National Climate Change Adaptation Planning" aim at ensuring that genetic resources for food and agriculture are part of national plans addressing measures for adaptation to climate change.
Genetic resources for food and agriculture encompass the diversity of plants, animals, forests, aquatic resources, microorganisms and invertebrates that play a role in food and agricultural production.
While these life forms are themselves threatened by climate change, their genetic makeup makes them key players in addressing the challenges such changes present, FAO said.
If properly conserved and used, for example, plant genetic resources may provide seeds that can tolerate or thrive amid greater aridity, frost, flooding or soil salinity. Livestock breeds raised in harsh production environments over a long period of time tend to acquire characteristics that enable them to cope with these conditions, FAO pointed out.
Policies that anticipate future needs and plan the management of genetic resources as a pivotal reservoir and tool can help build more resilient agricultural and food production systems.
For example, FAO is developing an instrument that can be used to predict the impact of climate change on the distribution of livestock breeds to promote more informed decision-making.
"Genetic resources for food and agriculture will have to contribute greatly to our efforts to cope with climate change," FAO deputy director-general for natural resources Maria Helena Semedo said. "We need to act now to reduce the risk that the scale and speed of climate change will surpass our ability to identify, select, reproduce and — eventually — use these resources in the field."
Guidelines fill a gap
Currently, there is no commonly adopted approach to integrating agricultural biodiversity into strategic planning for climate change adaptation. The Guidelines aim to address this gap. They will assist countries in addressing genetic resources dimensions when developing or updating their National Adaptation Plans (NAPs).
"We need to secure and mobilize genetic resources now to have options for the future. We need to have effective conservation, improved information and improved utilization pathways, and we need to plan. Funding is required to support countries in this process," said Irene Hoffmann, secretary of FAO's intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture, under whose aegis the guidelines were developed.
Greater efforts need to be made to conserve and support the sustainable use of plant varieties and livestock breeds and to collect and conserve the wild relatives of important food crops, FAO said, noting that maintaining on-site farm diversity allows for evolution in step with environmental changes. Regional and global gene banks provide for the maintenance of backup collections of genetic material that can be drawn upon to support climate change adaptation measures.
Given that all countries depend on genetic diversity from other countries and regions, international cooperation and exchange of such material is crucial, FAO emphasized. In this regard, the commission negotiated the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food & Agriculture, which allows researchers and breeders to access genetic resources from other countries.