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A Global Rescue Plan for Fruit and Vegetable Diversity

Charting a path forward to conserve precious genetic resources for future food options.

Food plants contribute an astonishing array of colors, textures, flavors and, most importantly, vital nutrients to our diets. Yet many fruit and vegetable species are under threat from changes in land use and climate, as well as other factors.

If we want to ensure fruits and vegetables remain on our dinner tables, we must reverse this trend. A distinguished group of scientists are committed to doing just that. Together they have prepared ‘Safeguarding and Using Fruit and Vegetable Biodiversity,’ an ambitious 10-year rescue plan for the genetic resources of the plants necessary for a sustainable, healthy food supply. 

The World Vegetable Center (WorldVeg) and the Crop Trust are taking the initiative to turn the plan into practice.

This will ensure fruit and vegetables can fulfill an increasingly prominent role in a new global research and development agenda emphasizing nutrition and healthy diets alongside climate action, safeguarding biodiversity, ending poverty, and improving livelihoods. 

Poorly conserved and largely undocumented

While a few globally popular crops such as tomatoes and bananas attract research funds, less well-known fruits and vegetables and their wild relatives languish from a lack of attention. A quarter of the 1,100 recognized vegetable species worldwide are not conserved in genebanks, for example. 

Wild relatives of fruits and vegetables—sources of traits for heat and drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, new colors, shapes, and taste, nutrients, yield, and more—are also poorly represented in genebanks. More than a third of 883 wild fruit and veg relatives require urgent conservation and more than half are a medium priority for protection. Only 3% can be considered well-conserved.

“Without back-ups of seed in genebanks, these species and their valuable traits are at risk of being lost forever,” said Maarten van Zonneveld, World Vegetable Center Genebank Manager and one of the plan’s authors. “Such loss will diminish choices in the food supply and severely limit the ability of plant breeders to adapt existing food crops to changes in the environment.”

Development of improved tomato varieties, for instance, relies almost entirely on the diversity safeguarded in genebanks. Without more and better germplasm conservation, breeders will lack the building blocks to craft nutritious new varieties that taste good, resist pests and diseases, and can thrive under shifting climate conditions. 

Safeguarding the supporting cast

To successfully reproduce, most fruits and some vegetables need interactions with insect pollinators and other supporting organisms. Over the past 40 years, the yields of crops that depend on insects for pollination have declined 13% compared to crops that do not need insects. This “pollinator-yield gap” has been brought about by an average 45% decline in terrestrial insect populations during those four decades, the result of habitat destruction, degradation, and fragmentation. Wild species dependent on insect pollinators for cross-fertilization are also at risk of extinction. The plan notes the necessity of protecting fruit and vegetable pollinators and seed dispersers as part of the effort to ensure diversity in food crops going forward.

Six positive trends to stem the decline

The current situation is worrying, but there is hope. The plan outlines six trends favoring better conservation and use of fruit and vegetable biodiversity: 1) greater awareness of the health benefits of diets rich in fruit and vegetables; 2) an increase in the proportion of fruit and vegetable crops in global food production; 3) a resurgence of some hitherto underutilized and neglected species; 4) an increase in food diversity in many countries, as immigrants bring their food plants and preferences to new locales; 5) advances in biotechnology to develop new varieties; and 6) a tripling over the past 40 years of the total area to protect natural habitats and traditional production systems, many managed by indigenous communities with a commitment to maintaining agrobiodiversity.

“We could be on the cusp of a fruit and vegetable renaissance,” said Stefan Schmitz, Crop Trust Executive Director. “We just need the political will.”

It is important that young people in particular understand why fruit and vegetable biodiversity matters to their health and economic well-being, the authors say. School meals and school garden programs are ways to nourish students while maintaining a range of local crops in local food systems. Chefs, cooks, and food innovators promoting the taste, cultural, and health aspects of local fruit and vegetable crops can create demand to drive conservation and greater use.

A 10-year plan for protection and use

The USD 250 million, decade-long global rescue plan for fruit and vegetable biodiversity aims to strengthen the existing network of genebanks, fill gaps, and protect wild populations of fruit and vegetable species and their pollinators and dispersers. 

Collecting the diversity of underutilized and neglected fruit and vegetable species and their wild relatives to increase the breadth and depth of genebank holdings will be the initial focus. Strengthening genebanks in sub-Saharan Africa is another priority; the region is lagging behind in the infrastructure to document, maintain and use local crop diversity.

“There have been some notable successes recently in promoting local vegetables in some African countries,” said Luigi Guarino of the Crop Trust, one of the plan’s authors. “We need to scale that up, and researchers and farmers need access to diversity to do that.”

Farmers, breeders, researchers, and businesses will all benefit from stronger global partnerships for the collection, conservation, and sharing of fruit and vegetable diversity. Internationally agreed policies and regulations governing these actions can prevent exploitation of local communities and landscapes.   

Putting ideas into action

Fruit and vegetables provide nutrition and food security, income-generating opportunities, ecosystem services, and contribute to cultural identities. Protecting these species—and by extension, our ability to nourish ourselves—demands urgent action. 

The authors suggest a global team of experts from different sectors and disciplines launch an initiative under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to better conserve, monitor, and understand the diversity of our fruit and vegetable crops. 

Aligning existing conservation efforts and including measures to protect pollinators and associated organisms is key, as is improving access and benefit-sharing agreements for the exchange and use of food genetic resources. Partnerships among global custodians of diversity—from individual farmers to national parks, from public breeding programs to private seed companies—will be essential to the initiative’s success.  

“With sufficient, sustained funding, this global rescue plan for fruit and vegetable diversity can shift the research and development agenda to focus on nutrition and well-being,” said Marco Wopereis, World Vegetable Center Director General. “That’s where the emphasis needs to be.”     

The Authors of the Rescue Plan

Dr. Maarten van Zonneveld, World Vegetable Center; Dr. Luigi Guarino, Crop Trust; Dr. Gayle M. Volk, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Dr. E. Ehsan Dulloo, Bioversity International; Dr. Roeland Kindt, World Agroforestry Centre; Dr. Sean Mayes, Crops for the Future; Dr. Marcela Quintero, International Center for Tropical Agriculture; Dr. Dhrupad Choudhury, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development; Dr. Enoch G. Achigan-Dako, University of Abomey-Calavi.

About the World Vegetable Center

The World Vegetable Center (WorldVeg), an international non-profit institute for vegetable research and development, mobilizes resources from the public and private sector to realize the potential of vegetables for healthier lives and more resilient livelihoods. WorldVeg’s globally important genebank, improved varieties, production, and post-harvest methods help farmers increase vegetable harvests, raise incomes in poor rural and urban households, create jobs, and provide healthier, more nutritious diets for families and communities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. See www.worldveg.org for more information.

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