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Feeding the future: Plant genetic resources as global public goods

28 September 2004

Global food security is seriously threatened by the disappearance of plant varieties, according to a high- level biodiversity expert.

The trend towards uniformity in agriculture and the disappearance of ecosystems where wild plants to blame, according to Dr Coosje Hoogendoorn, Deputy Director General of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI).

Speaking at the ourth International Crop Sciences Conference, taking place this week in Brisbane, Australia, Dr Hoogendoorn urged global action to reverse the loss of crop diversity. IPGRI is the largest international research institute solely devoted to the conservation and use of crop diversity.

The Congress has brought together over 1000 delegates from 65 countries to focus on the key issues for cropping systems that provide food, feed and fibre for the world.

“Because food security is a worldwide concern, ensuring that hungry people all over the world can eat requires requires collaboration among all countries. An important step is for countries to agree to give high priority to the regulation, through international agreements, of access to and equitable sharing of benefits from crop diversity. Access to this diversity provides farmers and breeders with the options they need to improve the response of their crops to changing climates, disease and pests,” she said.

“Studies have shown that no country is independent in terms of its food sources and supply – humans rely for 90% of their diet on only 15 major crops, all of which have spread far from their areas of origin.”

“To improve these crops, and to keep one step ahead of changing pests and diseases, it is crucial that a large repository of diversity be available in the form of varieties with useful traits for farmers and plant breeders to draw upon.”

“Until the latter part of the last century, the world’s plant diversity was considered a public good, like the air. With the disappearance of many traditional plant varieties due to the modernization of agriculture, growing urbanization and other factors, it became evident that international agreements were needed to protect the conservation and management of diversity.”

“A series of international conventions culminated this year in the adoption of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which proposes a global system of access and benefit-sharing for the world’s most important food crops.”

“Massive efforts over the last few decades have created genebanks in most countries. These now conserve about 5.4 million samples of crop varieties for use.”

Hoogendoorn noted that new techniques are being perfected for molecular evaluation of this material to allow the precise identification of their traits.

“Knowledge about a variety’s disease and pest resistance, nutritional characteristics and suitability for changing environmental conditions is critical to ensuring its usefulness to farmers,” said Hoogendoorn.

She explained that information about the crop varieties held in collections is available through such networks as the CGIAR’s System-wide Information Network on Genetic Resources.

International efforts to protect and use plant diversity include two new initiatives, according to Hoogendoorn.

“The Global Crop Diversity Trust aims to raise a $260 million endowment to support the costs of conserving crop diversity in genebanks on an ongoing basis. The second initiative brings together international research institutions and partners from developing countries to “unlock” the potential of crop diversity through the use of molecular tools. The initiative has an initial focus on improving the drought tolerance of crop plants.”

IPGRI is involved in both initiatives.

“And Australia has been very supportive of both the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Vavilov-Frankel Fellowships for young scientists from developing countries to study agricultural biodiversity.”

Hoogendoorn emphasized the importance of commitment to these and similar efforts by countries and research institutes worldwide and urged Conference participants to help spread news of these promising initiatives throughout their home regions.

4ICSC would like to thank all its supporters including the following major sponsors:
AusAID, CSIRO, Pioneer Hi-Bred International and QDPI

More information:
Cathy Reade, Media Manager, 4th International Crop Science Congress
Mobile: 0413 575 934

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