On the occasion of the 4th High-Level Ministerial Round Table on the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, New York, 24 September 2014
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
I’ll speak about something we all agree on, that we all think is right, that we all know is right. But it is also something we have such great difficulty translating to action.
I’ll speak about preventive and proactive action – and apply it to crop conservation and use.
Much of our work in climate change is repairing damage already done – whether we speak about land degradation, deforestation, contaminated ground water or loss of biodiversity.
It is obvious we have not been proactive to stay ahead of the problems.
At times we don’t take action because of complacency, or we don’t have the money upfront, because we can’t get the politics right or we don’t have the knowledge.
We end up with cure rather than prevention.
A part of the challenge is also images created in public opinion.
Who gets credit for preventive action? Who gets credit for silent diplomacy?
Well – what reaches the headlines and portray decision makers as strong, are those who take steps to repair. Those who take action when it is too late. When the suffering has gone so far it has reached the headlines.
Proactive policies are right, first of all because we prevent human suffering and secondly because we save money in the long run.
The International Panel on Climate Change has clearly told us that agriculture is challenged by climate change. They have explained that business as usual is not an option if we want to feed the world.
We know that 1 out of 8 are hungry today. We know we will be 1 billion more people on the globe in 10 years from now.
Proactive policies are required.
9 million people die of hunger every year – slightly more than the whole population of New York or roughly equal to the population of Sweden.
We need game changers in the way we do agriculture in order to feed a growing population.
Agricultural biodiversity – crop diversity – has an even greater potential to be a game changer than it has in the past. It is one of the most valuable natural resource on earth. It is a global common good that possesses the key to a food secure world. Far too little understood – far too little talked about.
It is hard to make a cake without the right ingredients. It is difficult to see how we can make crops climate ready unless we go back to the ingredients – to the building blocs of agriculture – to crop diversity.
Crop diversity can be conserved in the fields and in plant genebanks around the world. Both are important.
We are all fortunate that many scientists and farmers have been proactive and had the foresight to collect and protect a substantial amount of diversity of crops for future generations. We must see to it that their work is safe and secure, and used to its full potential.
We have lost a tremendous amount of diversity in the field. According to OECD, the United States has lost 90 percent of its fruit and vegetable varieties since 1900, Chinese farmers are no longer growing 90 percent of the rice varieties they had 60 years ago. Mexico has lost 80 per cent of its maize varieties. That is why the plant gene banks are important.
The Crop Trust is the only organization that works to support the most important genbanks around the globe to conserve and make available to farmers, breeders and scientists the crop diversity in plant genebanks. We operate under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Treaty is necessary for our work and we are “an essential element of the funding strategy of the Treaty”.
We contribute to conserving all of the 200 000 varieties of rice, the 125 000 varieties of wheat and the 3000 varieties of coconuts that are left today. Because just one of these might have the trait that rice, wheat or coconut need to adapt to higher temperature, to fight a new disease stemming from climate change, to increase nutritional value – or give better taste for that sake.
Access to the natural diversity of food crops gives us options – today and for the future.
We can produce what we need, while not being at the expense of the environment.
We have good examples to demonstrate this. The international rice institute, IRRI, has developed rice varieties that are more tolerant to submergence, to heat and salinity while at the same time giving substantially higher yields. It is a feat that is based on crop diversity.
These examples demonstrate the power of crop diversity. And we know we can utilize it much better than we do today through the combination of progress made in biology and in big data.
By combining the knowledge we have of where plants grow, information about their physical characteristics, and the sequencing data of the plants’ DNA, we will be able to speed up breeding processes, adapt plants faster to new conditions and provide the quantum leap which is required in food production and adaptability.
Developing these tools proactively is preventive action in practice. We are looking for more partners.
Safeguarding crop diversity for those of us on the globe today as well as our children and grandchildren, can be done through an endowment fund of USD 850 million. This fund will generate 34 million USD a year, which is all it takes to ensure that the treasure of crop diversity will be available for future generations to develop forever a resilient agricultural system.
The endowment model offers a sustainable and permanent funding solution, where donors can take pride in making a single contribution upfront that brings us an important step forward in ensuring food security for our sisters and brothers.
When the Secretary General of the United Nations visited the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that now hosts 825.000 varieties of seeds from all over the world, he said:
“Sustainable food production may not begin in the cold arctic environment, but it does begin by conserving crop diversity.”
Yes, it does. That is why we challenge governments, business, foundations and individuals to take part in the efforts to conserve and make crop diversity available to farmers, breeders and scientists.
That is why we need to see conservation and use of crop diversity, including its benefit sharing, much higher on the international political agenda.
This is how we can be proactive and get the foundation for food security right. Crop diversity isn’t the only answer, but ensuring its conservation and availability is the first step towards a food secure world.