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Hungry World Must Conserve Crop Varieties

Hungry World Must Conserve Crop Varieties

18 September 2013

Dr. Paula Bramel penned an editorial in the Des Moines Register on the importance of crop diversity: "Hungry world must conserve crop diversity."

Within the next 10 years, a billion more people will be living on the planet. In order to feed all of us, we need to produce at least 15 percent more food in the next 10 years. By 2050, we may need to grow 60 percent more.

Increasing food production to such an extent is not automatic, it is not optional, and it is needed at a time that is far from ideal for crops in the first place.

The U.S. Drought Monitor website does not look pretty. Iowa has seen two consecutive years of drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says corn production decreased by 13 percent from 2011 to 2012 because of drought. Soybean production decreased by 3 percent. And on top of that, there are diseases and pests that can cause yield losses of 30 percent to 40 percent each year.

Production losses hurt farmers, the economy and the consumer. Crop insurance in the U.S. has been a major factor in easing the impact of crop failure due to drought by paying out $18 billion to farmers in 2012, 60 percent of which was taxpayer money.

To minimize the need for insurance payouts of that magnitude year after year, what’s needed is for breeders to continue to churn out higher-yielding seeds resistant to drought, pests and diseases. A Cornell University study estimated that breeding efforts using crop diversity provide yield improvements worth $120 billion every year.

To continue that sort of performance, breeders need continued access to crop diversity, the raw materials of crop improvement. Ensure that access, and you ensure the future of our food. Conserving, sharing and using crop diversity is simply the most farsighted and cost-effective thing we can do to guarantee production. And it is much cheaper than crop insurance.

Unfortunately, all the diversity that breeders need, for all the crops that American farmers grow, is not found at home in the United States. The U.S. collection of crop diversity, though it is one of the biggest in the world, contains only 8 percent of the world’s corn samples, 7 percent of the world’s wheat and 5 percent of the world’s rice. Production of corn, wheat and rice in the U.S. was valued at $67.3 billion, $12.5 billion and $3 billion, respectively, in 2010.

That’s a lot of money to gamble on the chance that the genetic needle you’ll need to find in order to deal with the next Southern corn blight is found in less than the tenth of the haystack that you happen to have at home.

Of course the U.S. is not alone in this. Every country in the world has the same problem. We are all interdependent for crop diversity. All countries need access to as much diversity as possible, from as many other countries as possible. That requires global action.

That is why the Global Crop Diversity Trust has carried out the biggest biological rescue operation ever, safeguarding in the world’s best gene banks crop diversity that was found to be in danger of being lost. That’s also why it has embarked on a project to collect wild relatives of crops and conserve this diversity in international collections of crop diversity as well as in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault — a fail-safe conservation facility on an island north of the Arctic Circle. The cold, dry climate keeps the seeds alive for decades. Gene banks all over the world can send a copy of their collection there in case something happens to the copy back home. Svalbard is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s crop diversity.

More than 17 percent, 14 percent and 8 percent of the world collections of wheat, rice and corn, respectively, are held by international collections supported by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. These are freely available to the world’s breeders. Having access to these collections gives American breeders a better chance to find what they need.

We need the international collections of crop diversity conserved, made available and used by breeders. The Global Crop Diversity Trust is managing an endowment designed to do just this. We have been successful in raising $138 million for the endowment so far. It is a good beginning, but we need six times as much to fully safeguard the world’s major collections.

The annual cost of conserving these collections is estimated to be no more than $20 million, but this needs to be met reliably, year after year. The investment returns from an endowment of less than half a billion will be enough. What fraction is that of last year’s insurance payments?

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