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The Hindu: Protect crop diversity to feed all, says expert

The Hindu reports on Marie Haga’s lecture at the invitation of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.

Ms. Haga, a former politician from Norway, was in Chennai on Friday to deliver the millennium lecture on ‘Feeding a growing world — despite climate change,’ at the invitation of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation. 

While the U.S. is delighted that it has 1,000 varieties of apples, Marie Haga, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, has a different take on it. “A hundred years ago, the U.S. had 7,100 varieties. Now they have only 1,000 varieties. I tell them they have lost 6,100 varieties. You never know, these varieties might have had genetic traits that could have made them resistant to heat or pests or diseases,” she said.

Ms. Haga, a former politician from Norway, was in Chennai on Friday to deliver the millennium lecture on ‘Feeding a growing world — despite climate change,’ at the invitation of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.

She said agriculture was facing its “most profound challenge ever in 10,000 years” with the global population reaching 7 billion and agricultural production steadily declining. When in another decade the world adds another one billion people, there would be a 15 per cent drop in production of food. “If the temperature rises by one degree, the yield of rice will fall by 10 per cent. So if by the World Bank statistics, the temperature rises by three or four degrees, then the challenge is even greater,” Ms. Haga said.

The challenge can be met if governments worked to preserve their crop diversity. The way forward was to not only preserve the diversity but also to store copies of these diverse varieties in a gene pool for the common good.

In an interview to The Hindu, she explained how the concept worked. “When Canada developed its heat-resistant wheat variety, the input came from 30 different countries.” It is for this purpose that the Trust is seeking India’s support. “We don’t own any seeds but we fund the collection of seeds. We have done so for maize and wheat. India is important because it has a tremendous biodiversity,” she said. “Crops like pigeon pea, cucumber, egg plant have their origins in India. The point is where the plant originates, there lies the greatest variety. When you search for a specific trait you may find it in the place the crop originated,” she explained.

The only way to protect and increase production was to protect the diversity of crops. “When we lose diversity we lose options for the future. One key measure to increase productivity is to look at better varieties of seeds,” Ms. Haga said. 

The Trust is only interested in creating a gene pool of various varieties of crops and does not take a stand on the issue of genetic modification of crops. Also, “the idea is not to steal the seeds but to create a pool into which countries can delve as and when the need arises,” Ms. Haga said.

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