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Biodiversity for Food Security: A BOLD Approach

1 October 2021

IRRI, LOS BANOS, PHILIPPINES, 9 AUGUST 2016: Workers conduct drought resistance rice sampling at the International Rice Research Institute. IRRI is the world’s premier research organization dedicated to reducing poverty and hunger through rice science; improving the health and welfare of rice farmers and consumers; and protecting the rice-growingenvironment for future generations. IRRI is an independent, nonprofit research andeducational institute founded in 1960 by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, withsupport from the Philippine government. The institute, headquartered in LosBaños,Philippines, has offices in 17 rice-growing countries in Asia and Africa, and About 1,000 staff members. Working with in-country partners, IRRI develops advanced rice varieties that yield more grain and better withstand pests and disease as well as flooding, drought, and other destructive effects of climate change. More than half of the rice area in Asia is planted to IRRI-bred varieties or their progenies. The institute develops new and improved methods and technologies that enable farmers to manage their farms profitably and sustainably, and recommends rice varieties and agricultural practices suitable to particular farm conditions as well as consumer preferences. IRRI assists national agricultural research and extension systems in formulating and implementing country rice sector strategies. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for Crop Trust.)IRRI, LOS BANOS, PHILIPPINES, 9 AUGUST 2016: Workers conduct drought resistance rice sampling at the International Rice Research Institute. IRRI is the world’s premier research organization dedicated to reducing poverty and hunger through rice science; improving the health and welfare of rice farmers and consumers; and protecting the rice-growingenvironment for future generations. IRRI is an independent, nonprofit research andeducational institute founded in 1960 by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, withsupport from the Philippine government. The institute, headquartered in LosBaños,Philippines, has offices in 17 rice-growing countries in Asia and Africa, and About 1,000 staff members. Working with in-country partners, IRRI develops advanced rice varieties that yield more grain and better withstand pests and disease as well as flooding, drought, and other destructive effects of climate change. More than half of the rice area in Asia is planted to IRRI-bred varieties or their progenies. The institute develops new and improved methods and technologies that enable farmers to manage their farms profitably and sustainably, and recommends rice varieties and agricultural practices suitable to particular farm conditions as well as consumer preferences. IRRI assists national agricultural research and extension systems in formulating and implementing country rice sector strategies. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage by Getty Images for Crop Trust.)

A groundbreaking 10-year project is launching to improve food security and climate resilience globally and support livelihoods, health and wellbeing.  

“Biodiversity for Opportunities, Livelihoods and Development,” or BOLD, a project funded by the Norwegian Government and managed by the Crop Trust, will launch this month to support the development of climate resilient crop varieties and ensure they reach farmers’ fields.

BOLD will expand on the Crop Wild Relatives Project (CWR Project), a global initiative to adapt crops to climate change. The CWR Project is coming to an end this year after over a decade of impact.

That pioneering effort brought together genebanks, farmers, crop breeders and researchers to collect and conserve the threatened diversity of wild plant species related to crops. It used this diversity to develop new crop varieties that can better withstand pests, heat and drought—an essential step in securing global food security in the face of climate change.

But there is still much more that can be done. BOLD will extend support to 15 national genebanks in low- and middle-income countries to better conserve and use their crop diversity, involve them in the most successful pre-breeding partnerships of the CWR Project to develop new crop varieties, and strengthen linkages between genebanks and seed systems. It will also fund and support genebanks to duplicate their invaluable collections and store them in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Organized in three phases, total funding for the project will be approximately USD 58 million over 10 years.

The project is funded by the Government of Norway and led by the Crop Trust, in partnership with the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU), genebanks and agricultural research organizations around the world.

BOLD will support the Plant Treaty, an important international legal instrument ratified by 148 countries around the world, which provides the legal basis for the sharing of seeds and the benefits that arise from the use of those seeds in training, research and breeding.

“Crop diversity is the backbone of agriculture,” says Crop Trust Executive Director Stefan Schmitz. “And seeds have never been more important to humanity—we must save what’s left of our crop diversity and continue the critical work we began through the CWR Project.”

With the CWR Project ending in December 2021, it was clear to all those involved that they could not lose momentum, and build on the incredible progress already made. The project successfully enhanced the capacity of 25 national genebanks around the world to collect and conserve the diversity found in crop wild relatives and developed pioneering partnerships to use wild relatives in pre-breeding for 19 crops in 50 countries to combat the effects of climate change. Some of the key  results of the pre-breeding work have been published in a special issue of Crop Science.

“The global development agenda recognizes conserving crop diversity in genebanks as critical for food security, especially in the face of climate change. But conservation alone is not enough,” says the project’s manager, Benjamin Kilian of the Crop Trust. “It’s just as important to ensure that conserved crop diversity is available for researchers, breeders and farmers to actually use, for breeders to develop new varieties of crops that meet the needs of farmers and consumers.”

BOLD will enhance genebanks’ capacity to conserve, harness and share the diversity they safeguard, including by supporting their collaboration with seed systems actors to ensure that high-quality seeds of a range of important crops and varieties are available to farmers and other stakeholders.

“The incredible outcomes of the CWR Project demonstrate the value of this work for sustainability, biodiversity and food security,” says Daniel van Gilst, Senior Adviser on Agriculture and Environment at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad). “This new project provides a unique opportunity to expand this important work, beyond the genebanks themselves and into farmers’ fields and communities.”

The idea for BOLD arose organically from discussions with partners during the CWR Project. Partner genebanks expressed a strong interest not only in collecting and conserving diversity, but also in increasing their collaborations with both pre-breeders and farmers.

But genebanks face numerous constraints. Underinvestment has left many of them unable to guarantee the long-term availability of the diversity in their collections—the seeds they store may be dead or not available in sufficient quantities when needed. Many also lack the capacity to explore the diversity in their collections and determine how it can best be used by farmers and breeders. BOLD will address these constraints at both technical and policy levels.

Overcoming obstacles related to seed systems is a key component of the project, one which will be led by Ola Westengen, Associate Professor at NMBU. “Resilient seed systems are at the core of resilient food systems,” says Westengen. “In this project we will together with seeds system actors in the countries, co-develop and test models to strengthen the connections between genebanks and the seed systems farmers use.”

The global importance of conserving and using crop genetic diversity is captured in Target 2.5 under the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 2. BOLD supports SDG 2 by contributing to improved climate resilience and food security in rural communities in low- and middle-income countries.

The work is also aligned with the Norwegian Government’s action plan on sustainable food systems.

“Biodiversity is crucial for sustainable food systems. This understanding is part of the reason for Norway’s establishment of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault,” says Minister for International Development Dag-Inge Ulstein. “We are pleased to support BOLD as it effectively translates conservation of crop diversity in genebanks into development outcomes related to food security.”

Learn more about the BOLD Project:

This article was originally posted on the Global Landscapes Forum.

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