Hunger remains one of the world’s greatest challenges. Last month, the United Nations announced that hunger is once again on the rise and now affects 11 percent of the world’s population. The global population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050, which will lead to further challenges in stemming the rise of hunger.

Our challenge isn’t just the sheer number of people we have to feed. Agricultural systems are vulnerable to climate change, including more frequent extreme weather events, which is already reducing yields. Climate change not only batters our crops but also threatens the crop diversity that could, in the long term, provide the key to feeding the world.

 

Building blocks of agriculture

 

“Crop diversity provides the building blocks of agriculture,” explains Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust. “Every variety encodes its own special traits in its genetic makeup. Some traits allow the crop to withstand higher temperatures or drought, other traits provide greater nutritional value. When the climate changes faster than plants can adapt, we can lose varieties, forever.”

We have in the past decades pursued an intensification of our agricultural systems that has helped to feed the world, but that has come at an environmental price and may not be sustainable. In the process, we have lost both crop diversity and knowledge. In many places around the world, the diverse farming systems of old have been replaced by more productive, but in many cases less sustainable, monocultures of limited numbers of varieties.

Time is not on our side. Buried among the dozens of targets of the Sustainable Development Goal is Target 2.5, which aims to promote sustainable agriculture and maintain genetic diversity of seeds – by 2020. “This illustrates how urgent it is to safeguard crop diversity,” reinforces Ms. Haga. “If we preserve crop diversity, we can use conventional breeding techniques to develop new varieties that are adapted to new circumstances. Right now, our job is to safeguard what crop diversity we still have, both in farmers’ fields and in genebanks.”

 

Our job is to safeguard what crop diversity we still have, both in farmers’ fields and in genebanks. Photo credit: The Crop Trust

Safeguarding diversity

 

While crop diversity is at risk, all is not lost: it is also being protected, by farmers in many parts of the world, and in collections maintained in genebanks. There are about 1,750 genebanks in the world, which store and preserve the diversity of our food crops, mainly in the form of seeds. But these banks are not museums, where seeds can be admired but not touched. They are more like public libraries, distributing the diversity in their care to breeders, researchers, and indeed farmers. Crop diversity gives them opportunities to develop and cultivate plants that are more nutritious, tolerate higher temperatures, use less water, withstand higher soil salinity and are more resistant to new pests and diseases. Plants, in other words, that are future-ready.

Many of the world’s genebanks, however, are vulnerable, not only to natural catastrophes and war but to lack of funding or inadequate management. The Crop Trust is working with partners to create and fund a global system to guarantee the conservation and availability of the genetic diversity in genebanks, thus unleashing their potential and promoting their use.

This system includes international genebanks, national genebanks and the world’s global back-up facility for our agricultural heritage – the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Seed Vault is located on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Its creation in 2008 was a global success for the future of agriculture.

“It’s like a safety deposit box for the whole world’s agriculture,” explains Ms Haga. “The dream is to have a copy of every genebank sample in the world in Svalbard.”

The facility has already proved invaluable. Starting in 2008, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) made several deposits. When war broke out in Syria, ICARDA genebank managers withdrew a selection of seeds from Svalbard to re-start their conservation work at new facilities in Morocco and Lebanon. The samples were regenerated and then returned to Svalbard this year in two deposits.

Syria is not unique; crops are being lost because of conflicts in many other parts of the world. In time, farmers in these regions will require the opportunities crop diversity provides to re-start agriculture and, at the same time, improve crop production.

 

Genebanks are vulnerable to natural catastrophes and war, lack of funding and poor management. Photo credit: The Crop Trust

Technological opportunities

 

Advances in technology also offer tremendous opportunities for agricultural researchers and scientists to access the knowledge stored in genebanks across the world. “With modern technology, it’s reasonably cheap to sequence genomes and manage the resulting big data,” says Ms Haga. “Each variety has distinct traits someone might be looking for, but it’s a hugely underutilized resource at the moment, because we don’t have enough data on each sample.”

To develop this global system of conservation to its full potential will take not only financial investment but also a renewed global appreciation of the role that agricultural diversity plays in feeding the planet. We must act to ensure that agriculture is robust and resilient enough to produce nutritious crops well adapted to a regime of fewer inputs, and more challanges. In the struggle to ensure food security, everyone has a role to play. By spreading the word about the importance of crop diversity, and lobbying governments and private sector leaders to commit to the conservation efforts of genebanks, we take a massive step towards ensuring our children’s children’s food will be secure.

 

The Seed Vault is located on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago. Photo credit: The Crop Trust