Work with nature, feed the world

Speech by Marie Haga, Crop Trust Executive Director

When you construct a house, you have to make sure that the foundation is right and strong.

If we are serious about feeding a growing population more nutritious food, in the midst of the pretty chaotic climate we are experiencing these days, we have to make sure that we have the foundation right. Today we don’t have that.

I want to speak about this foundation, the building blocks of the future of agriculture, this global common good called crop diversity, which possesses the key to a food secure world.

Food production is based on a value chain that actually starts with a seed.  Plant genetic material is one of the most valuable resources on earth. Far too little understood – far too little discussed.

It is very urgent to bring the importance of crop diversity higher on the political agenda.

It is urgent because in its 13,000-year history, agriculture is up for its biggest challenge ever.

It is a dual challenge.

Predictions say we need to feed 1 billion more people in the next 10 year. Considering we are only 7 billion people right now, it is a major increase. To keep up, we will have to produce at least 15 percent more food.

And, for many people, food needs to be more nutritious.

15% more food in only 10 years – it definitely does not come automatic.

Not only do we need to produce more and more nutritious food. But it has to be done in the midst of substantial environmental changes.

Scientists tell us that if the temperature on the globe increases by 1 degree Celsius, the yields of rice will be reduced by 10 percent. The temperature on the globe will not increase only by one degree – it will probably be more like the World Bank predicts – a raise in temperature of 3–4 degrees. What this will do to rice, for example, we quite simply do not know, but it will undoubtedly not be good.

We are expecting a report from the IPCC in the near future that will most likely say that, although some parts of the world will benefit from climate change, the over all picture is that agricultural production will be reduced by 2% per decade if we continue with our current agricultural scheme.

We are in other words heading towards a ‘perfect storm’ of population growth and reduced production. This does not add up in terms of food security. Something has to be changed. We need quantum jumps.

We need to produce more food, on less land, with less energy, and in more unpredictable weather.

Right now temperature and other climatic conditions change faster than crops are able to adapt. It is serious!

This problem has to be solved. Not feeding a growing population sufficient nutritious food is not an option for any sensible human being – certainly not for serious decision makers.

What on earth are we going to do?

An important part of the answer is in the seeds.

It is clear that a future sustainable food system has to be based on the diversity of crops and the diversity within crops.

Not too long ago, shameful to say, I thought – with a few nuances – that rice was rice. Rice is around 200,000 different types of rice. There are at least 120,000 types of wheat. More than 4,000 types of potatoes.

This amazing diversity of seeds is the raw material that breeders and farmers need to improve crops. Crop improvement clearly is required for feeding the growing population, for fighting new diseases or pests which will come with a changing climate, for adapting to rougher weather, for higher salinity – you name it.

Breeders and farmers regularly come up with new varieties. However, breeding is a very complicated and a long-term process. It took for example 3170 different crosses to develop a variety of wheat called “Veery”. And it took several decades to get there. A lot could be said about this, but now my point is that breeders and farmers depend on diversity to do their important jobs and sadly we are loosing diversity every day.

In the beginning of the century the US had approximately 7,100 varieties of apples.  The figure might not be exact, but it gives a good idea. Today they have around 1,000 varieties of apples.

Wouldn’t 1000 varieties suffice? For you and me as consumers, yes. For farmers and breeders – no.

Why? Because we have lost 6,100 varieties, and one of those varieties might have had exactly the trait we now need to fight a new apple disease, fight a pest or adapt apples to higher temperatures.

The green revolution was no doubt a blessing, but we have lost a vast amount of diversity the way we do modern agriculture.

We cannot retrieve what we have lost, but we can save what we have.

If agriculture is going to be able to adapt tomorrow, in 15, 50 or 100 years from now, it is urgent that the still existing diversity is being conserved. We do not know what tomorrow brings. We don’t know what we need in the future.

Remember this: When we conserve crop diversity, we conserve options for the future.

Seeds are conserved in farmers’ fields and in plant genebanks around the globe. Both are equally important – the Crop Trust mandate is about seeds in gene banks.  ‘Genebank’ might sound suspicious, but what they do in a plant genebank is quite simply collect, characterize, conserve and share seeds with farmers and breeders in order for them to come up with new and better varieties.

Crop diversity is truly a global common good. No country in the world is self reliant on genetic resources. We are all dependent on each other and it is a strong interdependence. As an example, when the already mentioned wheat variety “Veery” was bred, plant genetic resources from 26 countries were used.

Luckily the governments of the world have adopted the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which establishes an agreed framework for exchange of plant genetic material – including benefit sharing. The Treaty is of utmost importance. We encourage all countries to sign it and fully implement it. Our work in the Crop Trust is completely dependent on the willingness of countries to share genetic material, and there is no reason why they should not.

There are 1,750 plant genebanks around the globe. Some of them are in great shape and the seeds are safely stored. Many are unfortunately not in good shape and seeds are not safe.

The Crop Trust is established to ensure that the most important crop diversity in these genebanks is safeguarded – forever. We are working to develop a cost, effective rational global system with the 11 international CGIAR genebanks at the center and with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as the ultimate safety back up.

We are also set up to fund the global system – in a forever perspective. That is of course because governments realize that crop diversity is too important to be left to uncertainty.

In practical terms this means that we are raising an endowment to finance key international and national genebanks, and at the same time implement large-scale project to help develop and strengthen the system. We have carried out a major rescue operation of material in genebanks worldwide – rescuing 80 000 samples at risk – and we are now in the phase of implementing a 10 years project to collect, conserve and make available for use, crop wild relatives.

Please don’t ask me to give you the economic value of crop diversity. I can’t pronounce a number with that many zeros.

If you do ask, you really ask: what’s the economic value of future food security? – not only for our generation but for all generations to come?

I could tell you that the use of one wild relative in breeding a particular variety of tomatoes is estimated to add USD 250 million to it’s annual production value. The desirable traits of wild sunflowers are estimated to be worth USD 267 – USD 384 million annually,

We know the world community can very well afford ensuring the diversity of the major crops for future generations. It costs USD 34 million a year. If we complete a USD 850 million endowment fund it suffices to generate that annual return. We would safeguard one of our most precious natural resources and common good for all future generation.

I would say it is very cheap insurance policy for the world. It is no more than 1.5  Operahouse of the type we built in Norway a few years ago. It is less than 1 soccer stadium for the world cup in Brasilia.

This is very reasonable for making sure that we have the foundation right to ensure food security for all future generations.

The is doable, we know how to do it, it is not rocket science. Let us not loose more building blocks. Let us build the solid foundation so that all the important small and big farmers out there can do what they want – feed their family, their community, their country, and the world.

So please,

Help us push the governments of this world to join our fight for a food secure world, to fully implement the Treaty, freely share our common wealth of genetic resources and help us buildthe endowment to forever secure the preservation of this crucial global common good.

Thank you,

Marie Haga



Filter by
  • News
  • Social
Science Blog

The seeds of a COVID-19 response

Read More

Chatham House Dialogue

Read More

Potato Diversity Leads to Economic Gain in Uganda

Read More

A Carrot Revolution Takes Root in Bangladesh

Read More

Launch of Svalbard’s 100-Year Seed Experiment

Read More

All Hail the Rise of the Climate-Smart Potato

Read More
In the News

Indigenous Peoples Hold the Past and Future of Food in Their Hands

Read More

Spice Up This Summer’s Barbecue

Read More

Genebank Platform Annual Report

Read More

Chefs lead virtual dialogue on biodiversity & food with Future Food Institute

Read More