Global Crop Diversity Trust

A Foundation for Food Security

The Sustainable Development Goals

Marie Haga
Executive Director

Eighth session of the open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals

February 4, 2014 - New York

Today Marie Haga presents in New York at the the Eighth session of the open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals. This is her speech. Enjoy!

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour to speak to the Working Group on the Sustainable Developments Goals. Thank you so much for the invitation.

All of us are touched by the fact that far too many children go to bed hungry.  It is easy to understand the sorrow of parents who are unable to provide their children with enough, and sufficiently nutritious, food. Eradicating hunger and malnutrition through sustainable agriculture, with whatever wording is chosen, must be a post 2015 development goal.

It will not be easy. Agriculture is probably facing one of its biggest challenges ever in its 13.000 years history. There are several reasons, but the main is the dual challenge of population growth and climate change. Producing sufficient, nutritious food can never be taken for granted, but it will be even harder in the years ahead.

The IPCC warns of a 2 percent drop in agricultural output per decade if we continue as we are today.  On the other hand, projections by FAO and others say that demand for cereals may increase by at least 50 percent over current levels by 2050. Less food to feed more people: at the very minimum, that will lead to higher food prices. We know too well, from bitter experience, that it could also lead to social unrest and even famine. The security of societies depends on their food security.

We have to find a way to continue feeding the world.

The global community has faced major food challenges before. 160 years ago Potato Late Blight, a common potato disease, swept across Europe and triggered the Great Irish Famine. One million people died out of a population of 8 million, and one more million fled the country – a social and economic catastrophe. The famine was so disastrous because potato was the main staple food in Ireland, and the island relied on few closely related potato varieties, all with no defenses against the disease.

Biodiversity is the only sustainable weapon against such diseases. If we do not make use of the full range of the genetic diversity of a crop, we expose ourselves to the risk of disaster, as was the case in Ireland in the 1840s.

One more example: Southern Corn Leaf Blight. It spread like wildfire throughout cornfields (also called maize) in the United States in 1970, devastating perhaps 15% of the harvest and causing losses of a billion dollars. Although the immediate effect, as always, was greatest on small farmers, the bankers who had loaned farmers money began to worry about repayment and Washington worried about exports. The genetic uniformity in the corn crop in the USA was a primary cause of the disaster.

These are often quoted examples, but they remain highly relevant. Firstly, because they tell how closely economic, social and environmental issues are interrelated in agriculture and how basic crop diversity is to this interplay. Secondly, because we do not want the Irish Famine or the Southern Corn Blight epidemic to happen again. Yet something like those disasters happens, though on a smaller scale, every year in some part of the world. Climate change is bringing new challenges. We must remain ever vigilant.

I mentioned IPPCs prediction of 2 percent reduced yields per decade. That is and over all figure. If we go specifically to rice, research tells us that a 1degree Celsius temperature increase will reduce the yields of rice by 10 percent. This is dramatic when we know that 3 billion people depend on rice as their staple diet.

What will happen to this fundamentally important food crop if the world’s temperature increases by 2 – 3 degrees more than the 1 degree that we know can significantly impact yields? The results could be catastrophic.

The Green Revolution is starting to run out. According to one recent review, the steady growth in yields that many staple crops have been witnessing over the past few decades is beginning to show signs of leveling off. And this is happening just when we now need to produce more food, on less land, with less water and less energy inputs, in the midst of climate change. We need to go back and broaden the genetic basis of the crops we grow.

Crop diversity is more important than ever. In fact, crop diversity is a prerequisite for food security. We need to make crops climate ready.

Let us stay with rice. After more than a decade of work, the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has released a new rice variety that is substantially more tolerant to submergence than previous varieties. Rice likes water, of course, but not too much water. Too much water drowns it. And many rice growing regions will increasingly face longer periods with too much water in the fields. It is estimated that this more submergence tolerant variety will increase yields to 3 tons per hectare - and subsequently give better income to the farmer who in its absence could not have used her land.

Again we see crop diversity as the basis for the link between environment, economy and livelihood.

IRRI has also made progress on salinity tolerance. This is the result of thousands upon thousands of crosses with a weedy relative of rice found in the institute’s rice genebank, from which a single viable seed was rescued, which eventually led to material that can survive in what is basically sea water. The estimated yield for this variety under very salty conditions is 2 tons per hectare, quite a feat.

Let us remind ourselves that rice of course is not just rice – it is maybe 200.000 cultivated types of rice, plus more than a dozen close wild relatives. There are maybe 120.000 varieties of wheat, and more than 4.000 varieties of potatoes. 35.000 varieties of finger millets.  3000 varieties of coconut. And they have their wild relatives too.

We need to safeguard as much as possible of this diversity because any one of those varieties or wild relatives might have the trait we are looking for to fight a new disease or to allow rice, wheat or potatoes to face heat, drought, salinity or flooding. Or – and let me stress – make the crop more nutritious. Because we need to have more nutritious food, as well as diversifying our diet as a whole. We need to tackle “hidden hunger” at the same time as the more visible kind.

Continuous access to the diversity of crops gives us more options for the future. We can make sustainable intensification a reality if we boost the yields and nutritional value of crops, and we make use of the options nature offers to produce in an environmentally sound way. We can produce what we need, and protect natural environments.

We should be very worried that we are losing this precious diversity every day. According to an OECD report, the US has lost 90 percent of it fruit and vegetable varieties since 1900, Chinese farmers are no longer growing 90 percent of the rice varieties they had 60 years ago. Mexico may have lost 80 percent of its corn varieties and India 90 percent of its rice varieties since the beginning of the 1900s. Spain had 400 melon varieties in 1970 – 12 today. Generally speaking, the way we have been doing agriculture over the last decades has drastically reduced the diversity of the crops we produce.

We cannot retrieve what we have lost. But we can save and make available for use what we have. And that’s what we’ve been doing.

Diversity is still found in farmers’ fields in many parts of the world, of course, and it is available for immediate use in the plant genebanks of the world. There are 1.750 genebanks in total – some of which are in good shape, but others are not. It is worth noticing that the most important international collections – the 11 in the CGIAR system - are all, except one, to be found in the South.

My organization was created to help establish a cost-effective, rational global system for the conservation and availability of the diversity of the most important crops for food security - and to fund the system of crop gene banks. We work under the umbrella of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which 130 countries have ratified - a testimony to the importance of a global order for the exchange and use of plant genetic resources, including the sharing of benefits arising from such use.

No country is self sufficient in genetic resources. All countries in the world are interdependent. Even a country like the US has in its national genebanks less than 10 percent of the total found in the world’s genebanks.

A country like Brazil, the second most important producer of soybeans in the world, only holds 10% of the world’s soybean genetic resources, which originated in Asia. Nigeria is the number one producer of cassava globally. Yet, Nigeria only holds 12% of the world’s cassava genetic resources, while Brazil holds 25%, being the center of origin for cassava, but the crop is ranked only 18th in relation to all commodities in Brazil. Thus, Nigeria and Brazil are dependent upon other continents for the key diversity required to ensure increased production of their most important commodities. 

Successful crop breeding is highly dependent on functioning multilateralism. The wheat variety Veery – a variety highly resistant to diseases but which also gives good yields, and is grown in many countries – was bred with genetic resources from 26 countries. This is not unusual. This enormous interdependence shows that plant genetic resources are truly a global common good. And this is the reason why the International Treaty was negotiated.

The diversity of seeds we need for the future is found in farmers’ fields and in seed banks, but also in the wild relatives of domesticated crops. The wild relatives are often tougher than their cultivated cousins, with traits you might not find in the crop. Having survived for millennia on mountaintops, in a desert or in areas prone to floods, they might have unique characteristics that are highly important in breeding efforts.

The insufficiently tapped potential of crop wild relatives is one reason for being optimistic about the future. Another is the world of tools emerging from the combination of progress in biology and in big data. As big data is revolutionizing many aspects of our daily lives – be it personalized medicine, online encyclopedias or e-commerce – big data approaches, and in particular the analysis of the accumulating terabytes of genomic data, can also be used in the field of genetic resources.

By combining the knowledge we have of where plants grow, information about their physical characteristics, and the sequencing data of the plants’ DNA, we should be able to speed up breeding processes, adapt plants faster to new conditions and provide the quantum leap which is required in food production.

If you are looking for a second green revolution – this is probably where you will find it. A revolution which will benefit smallholder farmers, because it builds on locally adapted varieties and their related wild species, and the information and knowledge associated with them. It will also provide the crops and varieties that allow the agricultural system to be more resilient and hence secure livelihoods.

Again crop biodiversity connect the dots – environment, economic and social development.

Speaking about technology, it is relevant to look at breeding as technological advancement.  Hence the CGIAR centers should be viewed as repositories not only of seeds, but of technology which is publicly generated and available to everybody.

If food security were easy, we would have it by now. The complexities are all well explained in the Strategic Framework of the Committee on World Food Security.

But no matter how you look at it, no matter what the complexities, one fact is certain, simple, and clear: crop diversity is a prerequisite for a sustainable food system which provides more, and more nutritious, food in spite of climate change.

So where does this take us in terms of the post-2015 sustainable development goals?

We propose that any Sustainable Development Goal addressing the issue of food security and agriculture under climate change recognize the importance of crop biodiversity as a basis for food security and sustainable agricultural development.

One could be very general:

Crop diversity is urgently and effectively conserved and made available in perpetuity.

However, I would recommend that the globally negotiated target to this effect be picked up in the discussion of goals and target for the Sustainable Development Goals: the Aichi Biodiversity Target 13:

Target 13. By 2020, the genetic diversity of cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and of wild relatives, including other socio-economically as well as culturally valuable species, is maintained, and strategies have been developed and implemented for minimizing genetic erosion and safeguarding their genetic diversity.

Another option is picking up on target 9 of the Global Plant Conservation Strategy:

Target 9.  (That by 2020) 70 per cent of the genetic diversity of crops including their wild relatives and other socio-economically valuable plant species conserved, while respecting, preserving and maintaining associated indigenous and local knowledge. 

Or one could be more specific:

By 2018, the crop diversity collections protected under Article 15 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture are permanently secured.

Let me conclude by saying that conserving crop diversity and making it available can be done. It is not rocket science. We know how to do it. And it should urgently be done for environmental, economic and social reasons.

Thank you,

Marie