Drought crop field

Crop Diversity: Why it Matters

The six key areas where crop diversity is essential.

Ensuring food security, adapting to climate change, reducing environmental degradation, protecting nutritional security, reducing poverty and ensuring sustainable agriculture are just six reasons why it matters to conserve crop diversity.

Ensuring Food Security

The concept of food security is complex. It involves not only the production and processing of nutritious food, but also access by individuals to the full range of nutrients needed to maintain an active and healthy life.

Crop diversity is central to food security. It underpins today’s production and provides the raw material needed for ensuring continuing supplies tomorrow, in the face of a rapidly changing world.

The fight to achieve food security and end hunger is one of the greatest challenges facing the world. Rising populations, diminishing resources and deteriorating environments only raise the stakes. A greater diversity of genetic resources in genebanks, available to all through an efficient, global, ex situ conservation system, helps to ensure a secure food supply at more stable prices. It provides the raw genetic material to breed for a more nutritious and varied food supply and increases the access of the poor to more affordable and healthier food to fight malnutrition.

Adapting to Climate Change

Climate change will place unprecedented pressures on our ability to grow the food we require. These impacts will be particularly severe in developing countries. Scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show warming will take place over the next several decades irrespective of any action we take today. The same models show conditions for agriculture will be dramatically different from those which prevail today. Adapting agriculture to these future conditions is essential.

Climate change scientists widely recognize the need for new and improved crop varieties that can withstand these challenges. These improved crops are essential not only to reduce hunger but also to strengthen global food security in the medium and long term. The development of crop varieties that can cope with heat, drought, flood and other weather extremes may well be the single most important step we can take to adapt to climate change. However, breeding new varieties can often take up to 10 years, which mean the dramatically different conditions predicted for 2030 are a mere two breeding cycles away for some crops.

Reducing environmental degradation

The wise use of crop genetic diversity in developing improved crops can contribute significantly to protecting the environment. Crop varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases can reduce the need to apply harmful pesticides. More vigorous varieties can better compete with weeds, reducing the need for applying herbicides. Drought-resistant plants can help save water by reducing the need for irrigation. Deeper rooting varieties can help stabilize soils; and varieties that are more efficient in their use of nutrients require less fertilizer.

Most importantly, perhaps, productive agricultural systems reduce or eliminate the need to cut down forest or clear fragile lands to create more farmland for food production.

Protecting Nutritional Security

Crop diversity helps ensure not only a stable and sustainable supply of sufficient quantities of food – of energy and protein – but also plays a major role in ensuring its quality. Dietary diversity – a direct product of crop diversity – is itself considered desirable by nutritionists. And the supply of vital nutrients – of vitamins and minerals – can be enhanced through the judicious use of genetic diversity. New varieties can be developed with improved nutritional quality: with higher levels of vitamins, more readily available iron and other essential elements, better quality protein or with reduced anti-nutritional or toxic factors.

Significant progress has already been made in biofortification. Some success stories include high beta-carotene sweet potatoes, beans with higher levels of nutritionally available iron and zinc, and varieties of grasspea (Lathyrus) with greatly reduced levels of the paralysis-causing neurotoxin.

Reducing Poverty

Agriculture is the economic driver of most countries, and for developing countries economic growth is dependent on agricultural growth. Growth in agriculture, although beneficial for the wider economy, benefits the poor most. Agricultural growth can lead to providing affordable food for the 70% of the world’s poorest people who live in rural areas and who depend on agriculture.

Ensuring agriculture is able to play this fundamental role requires a range of improvements including: the growing of higher value crops; promoting value-adding activities through, for example, improved processing; expanding access to markets and lowering food prices through increasing production, processing and marketing efficiency, particularly for subsistence and very low income farming families.

Crop diversity is fundamental to agricultural growth. Crop diversity enables farmers and plant breeders to develop higher yielding, more productive varieties that have the improved quality characteristics required by farmers and desired by consumers. They can breed varieties that are better suited to particular processing methods or that store longer or that can be transported with less loss. They can produce varieties that resist pests and diseases and are drought tolerant, providing more protection against crop failure and better insulating poor farmers from risk.

Agriculture’s part in fighting poverty is complex, but without the genetic diversity found within crops, it cannot fulfil its potential. Crop diversity is one of humanity’s most potent weapons in the fight against hunger and poverty.

Ensuring Sustainable Agriculture

The use of a greater diversity of available crops is a strategy that farmers can apply to develop their own agricultural systems with minimal environmental impacts. The global system of ex situ conservation represents a key component of the race to protect these resources and make them available to farmers in all countries.

While this is a big task to undertake, the global community is already recognizing the importance of protecting agricultural biodiversity. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG Target 2.5, calls to secure crop diversity globally by the year 2020, as a prerequisite for food security and nutrition. This is one of the few near-term targets of the SDGs, making it truly urgent to achieve this goal but also very plausible if we all work together.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 2.5:

“By 2020 maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at the national, regional and international levels, and promote access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, as internationally agreed.”