Crop Diversity Can Save Food from the Climate Crisis
Diverse crops in Sri Lanka. (Photo: Shawn Landersz/Crop Trust)
15 November 2022
It is sometimes said that one crisis leads to another. There is little doubt that humanity is now facing a cascade of crises closely connected with climate change.
In the 30 years since the adoption of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), our understanding of the science behind global warming has grown enormously, yet the visible impacts are nevertheless snowballing on multiple fronts.
More than 100 world leaders are gathered at the 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27) of the UNFCCC in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to work toward the implementation of existing climate agreements and to address an expanding list of interrelated crises.
“We must acknowledge a harsh truth: There is no adapting to a growing number of catastrophic events causing enormous suffering around the world,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in opening remarks at COP27. “The deadly impacts of climate change are here and now.”
What can we do about them?
8 Billion and Rising
Clearly, action is necessary. Terrestrial and marine ecosystems, biodiversity and human lives are intertwined in self-reinforcing crises that have a common cause but seem to have taken on lives of their own, hampering our ability to feed a global population that has reached 8 billion.
The climate crisis is also a threat to global food security. On the first day at COP27, the organizers of a roundtable session reminded participants that agricultural land productivity has declined 21% in recent decades due to the high temperatures and changes in rainfall associated with climate change.
This slump in agricultural output also threatens livelihoods, infrastructure and political stability at a time of rapid population growth and burgeoning demand for food among expanding middle classes in emerging markets. All of this leads to increased competition for resources and greater price volatility, recently highlighted in the grain supply crisis resulting from the war in Ukraine.
The good news is that one of the key solutions to these crises can be found in nature itself: crop diversity. Scientists, breeders and farmers can use resilient plants—which are to be found both in the wild and in farmers’ fields—to adapt our agriculture to harsh environments, reduce environmental degradation, boost livelihoods and provide enough nutritious food for everyone. All at the same time!
When transferred to new varieties of crops, the traits found in traditional heirloom seeds and crop wild relatives can help farmers boost yields, cultivate marginal land more sustainably, and enhance the efficiency of agricultural production.
But genetic diversity is not enough. If we consider that only nine plant species account for two-thirds of total crop production, it is evident how exposed our food systems are to climate change and its associated security challenges. Our food systems need to include crops far beyond the usual suspects: wheat, rice, maize and potato. We need to grow more vegetables, and fruits, and legumes.
Growing a diversity of crops means more resilience to climate and conflicts, it means healthier diets and it means better livelihoods. There are hundreds of crops out there that could be grown more – lesser-known crops like finger millet and grasspea, reliable food sources in times of drought and crop failure. But they have not received the research and development money lavished on the staples, and are being left behind. Give them a boost, and they could take off.
We need crop diversity in farmers’ fields to be able to cope with the climate crisis. But that will not be possible to guarantee in the long term without the insurance policy provided by the world’s genebanks, and in particular the network of international genebanks which keeps the world’s crop breeding programs fueled. Only through stable long-term funding of key genebanks is it possible to deliver a global system of conservation of crop diversity that can operate safely in perpetuity.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides additional backup when countries need to restore national collections that may have been lost through natural disaster, pest and disease outbreaks, war or equipment failure.
The world’s food supply is on tenterhooks, leaving billions of people in the Global South vulnerable to poverty, hunger and political instability. Ensuring the full implementation of the Paris Agreement to defuse the climate crisis is the main objective of this month’s COP27 summit.
While humanity wrestles with this gargantuan task, it is equally important to scale up tried-and-tested solutions to related and linked problems that threaten the security of people’s lives and livelihoods.
The answer is in plain sight and can be found in Mother Nature herself.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Crop Trust. The Crop Trust is committed to publishing a diversity of opinions on crop diversity conservation and use.
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