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Marie Haga’s speech to experts on ‘big data’ and crop diversity

Last week, I had the pleasure to meet some truly brilliant, enthusiastic, and smart individuals in San Diego at a meeting on the use of big data approaches to help better explore the seed diversity stored in the world’s genebanks. I am pleased to share the speech that I gave to these fine people.

Genetic resources is one of the world’s most important natural resources. Regrettably, far too little recognized and spoken about.

In this room it is of course fully understood. And even more so – the fact that you are all here is a true testimony to our joint conviction that by more efficiently exploring the wealth of genetic resources stored in the world’s genebanks, we can take big steps towards a more food secure world.

As the Executive Director of the The Global Crop Diversity Trust, I have the honor to speak to you this morning and officially open this meeting. I am sure some of you are asking yourselves – why? – and what is this organization?

The Crop Trust is an independent international organization with the mission of ensuring the conservation and availability of plant diversity essential for food and agriculture.

We do this with a vision of securing forever the foundation of a diverse and sustainable agriculture to support food security and alleviate poverty.

In practical terms this means that we are raising an endowment fund to finance key international and national genebanks, and at the same time we implement large-scale projects to help develop and strengthen a global, rational system of plant genetic resource conservation. We have carried out a major rescue operation of material in genebanks worldwide and we are now in the phase of implementing a 10 years project to collect, conserve and make available for use, crop wild relatives around the globe.

We recognize that not only the conservation but also the utilization of the materials stored in the world’s genebanks is crucial. We are not in the business of supporting museums – we are in the business of supporting conservation efforts of genetic resources for active use. This is why we are here. This is why I am speaking to you this morning.

‘Big data’ is revolutionizing many aspects of our daily lives – be it personalized medicine, online encyclopedias or e-commerce. Personally I don’t know how I survived when I could not download music from the inter net.

It is not surprising that the potential of ‘big data’ approaches has also been recognized for the field of genetic resource conservation and utilization – which as we all know of course, derives it’s value from the ‘big’ diversity of our crops.

‘Big data’ comes with ‘big opportunities’ to tackle ‘big global challenges’: One of the biggest challenges that the world is facing is how to feed a growing population.

Predictions are that we will be 1 billion more people in only 10 years. Considering we are only 7 right now, and that feeding all of us will require 15 percent increased production, we are sure up for a challenge.

Particularly because predictions from the IPCC are that, due to climate change, production will be reduced by 2 percent every decade if we proceed as we do today.

Not feeding a growing population is not an option for any serious human being – certainly not for serious decision makers.

The global challenge quite simply is that we need to produce more food on less land, with less water and less energy in the years to come.

A fundamental part of this problem is that the climate changes faster than the plants are able to adapt. Hence food security is seriously threatened.

Serious quantum jumps in yields are required. And it has to happen fast. Plant breeding needs to be faster, more efficient and cheaper. Linkage of large scale sequencing and phenotyping data is our best bet for achieving the necessary crop improvement sufficiently fast.

Ladies and gentlemen: this is where we – all of us in this room – have a ‘big job’ to do.

And let’s not forget – the only reason we can gather here and speak about tackling ‘big challenges’ with ‘big data’ on ‘big diversity’ is by standing on the shoulders of proverbial ‘giants’. Those farmers, researchers, genebank managers and policy makers who have tirelessly worked to preserve and utilize the world’s common inheritance of plant genetic resources in the past. Many of them are in this room. We are grateful to you all.

Thank you very much and let us get going with the real work. We have a big job to do!

Best,

Marie

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