Traditional food crops and other plant varieties worldwide are in urgent need of protection from climate change and other environmental stresses, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said this week, as it observed the tenth anniversary of the international treaty to protect and share plant genetic resources.
FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf called on countries to develop specific policies to conserve and make wider use of plant varieties for generations to come. He lauded the injection of $6 million made available through the treaty to help farmers of traditional crops adapt to climate change.
"The conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are key to ensuring that the world will produce enough food to feed its growing population in the future," Diouf said.
Diouf pointed out that the global gene pool of more than 1.5 million samples of plant genetic material governed collectively and multilaterally by signature countries under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture "constitutes the basis for more than 80 percent of the world's food derived from plants and it is possibly our most important tool for adapting agriculture to climate change in the years to come."
The Treaty's ‘Benefit-sharing Fund' is being used to support farmers and breeders in 21 developing countries to adapt key crops to the new conditions brought on by climate change, floods, droughts, plant pests, plant diseases and other factors.
"The effects of climate change on agriculture do not respect national borders, they cover entire agro-ecological zones," said Shakeel Bhatti, Secretary of the International Treaty. "For this reason, this portfolio of projects is taking a pioneering approach in generating a global knowledge base. Some of these projects will help us to establish clear priorities and action plans across borders for future actions."
One such project is based in a potato sanctuary in Peru, where community members combine traditional knowledge with efforts to conserve native varieties, improve agricultural production and ensure food security.
"When I was a little girl, native potatoes were cultivated in the lower lands. Today, lower zones are much hotter than before and it is not possible to cultivate potatoes anymore. As a result, we need to cultivate them much higher in the mountain," said Francisca Pacco, Potato Park Guardian.
During a recent knowledge-exchange session with visitors from Ethiopia, Pacco and other Potato Park residents showed how they used local knowledge of wind patterns, native plants and other factors to change the locations and timing for local potato cultivation. With support from the Benefit-sharing Fund, Potato Park residents are also increasing income-generating activities.
"Farmers are the key actors in the conservation and sustainable use of food crops and they struggle with all the changes that are happening. If we work hard with a solid scientific basis and the integration of farmers, we will see results in two years when these projects will be over," said Zoila Fundora, a Cuba-based expert from the panel that evaluated the new projects approved.
"The fund helps farmers, in a very practical way, to adapt to climate change and contributes to food security by recognizing that one part of the solution is in the huge diversity of crops", said David Cunningham, a panel expert from Australia.