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Crop Diversity, the Key to the Success and Future of Brazilian Agriculture

Brazil exported more than $24 billion of soybeans, soy meal, and soy oil in 2012. Soybean actually comes from China, though, where it was domesticated thousands of years ago. It was brought to Brazil only relatively recently, since when Brazilian agriculture has flourished through its production. However, climatic change threatens to affect yields, and thus profitability.

Fortunately, Brazil has one of the most active and innovative agricultural research systems in the world. Crop improvement, an important component of this research effort, has played a key role in elevating Brazilian agriculture to the world-renowned status that it has today. Breeders in Brazil are working hard to make sure crops such as soybean, sugar cane, coffee, maize, and cassava are ready for the challenges posed by changing climates and markets. However, Brazil would not have been able to create such a unique and strong agricultural system if not for the crop diversity found in other parts of the world.

“Brazil is engaged in the task of ensuring global food security and food quality, sustainably increasing its production and transferring technologies to other tropical countries,” Roberto Rodrigues, former Minister for Agriculture for Brazil, has said “Although Brazilian food crops do not possess the same natural biodiversity as the Amazon, the vigorous investments in genetics and breeding of products from other countries and continents places Brazil at the forefront of food production and productivity of tropical areas.”

Actually no country in the world has a self-reliant food system. In fact, more than 90% of Brazilians’ intake of food calories is derived from plants that are not native to the region. And that’s pretty typical. Brazil, like most countries, has an agriculture based on crops whose diversity is found thousands of miles away, in fields, in the wild, but also in collections of seeds maintained by institutions. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is lucky to have Roberto Rodrigues on its board, is working to ensure the conservation of crop diversity essential for food and agriculture in these international collections.

In less than 10 years, the Crop Trust has raised an endowment valued at $140 million to provide permanent and reliable funding for the conservation of crop diversity, carried out the biggest biological rescue operation ever, helped to safeguard the crop diversity in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and secured funding for international collection of crop diversity for the next five years. The Crop Trust is currently working with partners around the world to conserve, use, and make available the wild relatives of crops.

Through these activities and by working to raise an endowment of more than $500 million the Crop Trust is helping to construct a global system for the conservation, use, and availability of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. A global system that has provided Brazil with more than 15,000 varieties of crops originating from 133 different countries. Brazilian research institutes have used this diversity to create an agricultural system that is one of the most efficient and productive in the world, and hopes to stay that way in the face of changing climates and markets.

It will not be easy, in Brazil or anywhere else. Within the next ten years, a billion more people will be living on the planet, requiring a 15 percent increase in food production. By 2050, production will need to increase 60 percent more. Not only will production need to increase, but it will need to increase amidst agriculture’s most profound challenge ever, climatic change.

To feed this growing population in the midst of climatic chaos you need plant breeding efforts to develop crops that yield more, resist pests and diseases, and survive through drought, salty soils, or whatever other challenges the future may bring. These efforts rely on the diversity of crops held in collections such as those supported by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

While Brazil is home to an abundance of biodiversity in the Amazon, it relies on the rest of the world for diversity in food crops. Brazil is dependent on a successful global system for the conservation and availability of crop diversity, and is uniquely positioned to take the lead in nurturing such a global system.

One could even envisage the Global System as a scaled up version of how Brazil conserves its crop diversity, with centralized long-term storage by CENARGEN, active collections in the regions, guaranteed access, and an overall emphasis on use.

Brazil must work in close collaboration with other major genebanks and with the Global Crop Diversity Trust to create an effective network of high-quality long-term conservation facilities around the globe, including its own. It could provide leadership and offer services to others in the region and beyond, coordinated in a globally efficient manner. It could partner with others to strengthen ties with breeding, which is where and how the real benefits of plant genetic resources will be created and shared. Brazil should continue to work to implement the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which provides the policy framework for the effective functioning of a global system.

If Brazil can help the Crop Trust design and implement a real, working, future-oriented Global System, then Brazil and every country will be able to take advantage of opportunities provided by the changed context. And, significantly, it will position itself to respond to the varied challenges that climate change will throw its way.

 

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