Crop Diversity: Why it Matters

The six key areas where crop diversity is essential.

Ensuring food security, adapting to climate change, safeguarding biodiversity, 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 in the coming decades. 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, increasing poor populations’ access to more affordable and healthier food to fight malnutrition.

Adapting to Climate Change

Forecasts for declines in the yields of staple crops show that climate change will place unprecedented pressures on our ability to grow the food we require, and these impacts will be particularly severe in developing countries. All IPCC scenarios show warming over the next several decades will take place irrespective of any action taken today. The same models show conditions for agriculture will be dramatically different from those which dominate today. Adapting agriculture to these future conditions is therefore essential.

The need for new crop varieties that can withstand these challenges is now widely recognized and is frequently cited in climate change discussions. These are essential not only to reduce hunger but also to strengthen global food security in the medium- and long term. Therefore the development of crop varieties that can cope with heat, drought, flood and other extremes may well be the single most important step we can take to adapt to climate change. However breeding new varieties takes time, often about 10 years to produce a new variety, meaning the dramatically different conditions predicted for 2030 are a mere two crop breeding cycles away.

Safeguarding Biodiversity

The loss of biodiversity is one of today’s most serious environmental concerns. According to some estimates, if current trends persist as many as half of all plant species could face extinction. Among the many threatened species are wild relatives of our crops – species that could contribute invaluable traits to future crop varieties. It has been estimated that 6% of wild relatives of cereal crops (wheat, maize, rice, sorghum etc.) are under threat as are 18% of legume species (the wild relatives of beans, peas and lentils) and 13% of species within the botanical family that includes potato, tomato, eggplant, and pepper.

The wise use of crop genetic diversity in plant breeding can contribute significantly to protecting the environment. Crop varieties that are resistant to pests and diseases can reduce the need for application of harmful pesticides; more vigorous varieties can better compete with weeds, reducing the need for applying herbicides; drought resistant plants can help save water through 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, for example with the development of high beta-carotene sweet potatoes, in work to develop beans with higher levels of nutritionally available iron and zinc, and the development of varieties of grasspea (Lathyrus) with greatly reduced levels of the paralysis-causing neurotoxin found in common varieties.

Reducing Poverty

Agriculture is the economic foundation of most countries, and for developing countries the most likely source of economic growth. Growth is most rapid where agricultural productivity has risen the most, and the reverse is also true. Growth in agriculture, although beneficial for the wider economy, benefits the poor most, and by providing affordable food these benefits extend beyond the 70% of the world’s poorest people who live in rural areas and for whose livelihoods agriculture remains central.

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.

Fundamental to all of these potential solutions is crop diversity – the diversity that enables farmers and plant breeders to develop higher yielding, more productive varieties having improved quality characteristics required by farmers and desired by consumers. They can breed varieties 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 fulfill 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.”