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Guest Op-Ed: A Global Response to a Global Challenge

Guest Op-Ed: A Global Response to a Global Challenge

29 October 2015

Last week Izmir hosted more than 80 of the world’s leading scientists in the field of plant genetic resources. As a meeting of scientists responsible for the safeguarding of crop diversity around the world, the meeting could not have been more important.

Crop diversity provides us with the building blocks we will need to develop the crops that will feed future generations. And these are stored and made available in gene banks around the world. To mark the occasion, Dr Mahmoud Solh, Director General of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) discusses the challenges facing the world as it seeks to secure long-term food security – and calls on Turkey to play its part to ensure our children are able to feed themselves.

You may be reading these words over breakfast, or lunch, or an afternoon coffee. When we have ready access to food and sustenance, it is all too easy to take this vital staple of life for granted. But the issue of food, and food security, permeates almost every aspect of our lives.

Turkish consumers suffered last year when a period of drought, followed by heavy rainfall, caused a significant increase in food prices. In contrast with much of the rest of the world, where prices are falling, this rise continued in 2015 and is having a knock on impact on inflation. Ironically, official warnings around the risk of drought this spring coincided with World Water Day on March 22nd.

So in Turkey, and around the world, what can be done to provide a long term, sustainable solution to these significant challenges? How can we develop the 70% more food the world will need to feed itself by 2050, in an ever-changing climate and with dwindling resources? And with a growing population across the planet and in Turkey, which by then will have an extra 20 million mouths to feed.

We must go back to the very building blocks of agriculture – the seeds from which we can develop the new crop varieties that will be able to deliver greater yields, to cope with ever more challenging conditions, like drought, heat, diseases, insect pests and other serious climate change implications, and  to grow and ultimately deliver more food from fewer resources. This is a practice as old as time, but it is only possible if scientists are able to access the seeds from which they can develop the new crops.

Around one third of the food energy consumed in Turkey comes from crops that are not native to the region. Most of these plants’ diversity is found elsewhere on the planet. This is why Turkey ratified the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) in 2007, joining 134 other countries in committing to a global system of crop conservation.

We live in an interdependent world, where nations must cooperate. Nowhere was this more apparent than ICARDA’s recent rescue of seeds from its gene bank in war-torn Aleppo. The seeds were taken from Syria to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, deep in the Arctic Circle. Then they were retrieved, and sent on to Morocco and Lebanon for planting and duplication, so diversity can continue to be shared with farmers and other researchers.  The seed collections that ICARDA hold in trust for humanity are focused on crops that grow in dry areas, which is 40% of the world’s surface, and home to 2.5 billion people.

Genebanks such as ICARDA’s distribute seeds to those scientists and producers who need them. The same is true of other international gene banks, like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, or the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia. Ours is a long-term mission: the conservation and distribution of global crop diversity. As such, we need long-term funding, which has not been easily secured in the past.

Fortunately, an international response to this challenge has emerged.  Ten years ago the Food and Agriculture Organization for the United Nations (FAO) and Biodiversity International (formerly the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, IPGR) on behalf of the CGIAR Consortium (formerly Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) founded the Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust), an international organization working to guarantee the conservation of crop diversity, forever.

The Crop Trust’s aim is straightforward: raise an endowment fund with which it will secure the funding of a truly global system of ex situ conservation.  ICARDA already benefits from funding from the Crop Trust, through a long-term grant for the conservation of the international collection of barley, faba bean, and grass pea. But to ultimately guarantee the conservation of our global crop diversity, the Crop Trust is seeking support from governments, foundations, companies and individuals around the world. It is asking for a one-time contribution to the endowment, which is so fundamental to our future prosperity. To-date, Turkey has not yet contributed, but it is my hope that Turkey, along with other strong, global actors, participates in the Crop Trust’s April 2016 International Pledging Conference. A modest contribution is the Crop Trust's target – miniscule when one considers the unthinkable cost of the world losing the ability to feed itself in the future.

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We must all protect and share the building blocks upon which we can secure food security for this generation and for the generations to come.  Those building blocks lie within our shared crop diversity.


DR MAHMOUD SOLH is the Director General at ICARDA

Dr. Solh assumed the office of Director General of ICARDA in May 2006.  He has been associated with international agricultural research and development in the dry areas since 1972 when he became a staff member of the Arid Land Agricultural Development (ALAD) Program of the Ford Foundation in the Near East, the predecessor of ICARDA.

He has served as Director of Plant Production and Protection Division at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for four years. Prior to that he served ICARDA for nearly 16 years in various capacities – as Lentil Breeder, Regional Food Legume Breeder in North Africa, Regional Coordinator of the Nile Valley and Red Sea Regional Program, and Assistant Director General for International Cooperation.

Dr Solh was a professor of Genetics and Plant Breeding at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon between 1980-1986. He holds a PhD in Genetics from the University of California, Davis, USA.

Categories: Genebanks, Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Food Security

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