Conserving plant genetic diversity

Editorial, Normal

The National, Tuesday 04th September 2012

THE loss of plant genetic diversity is considered one of today’s most serious environmental concerns by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
FAO, established by the United Nations, is concerned that if the current trend persist, as many as half of all plant species could face extinction.
More worrying is that among the many threatened species are wild relatives of our crops; species that could contribute invaluable traits to future crop varieties.
FAO is particularly concerned that such trend threatens the world’s food security and efforts must be made to conserve the plant diversity that are genetically related to the crops that we grow and eat.
In a report released recently, FAO warns that the loss of biodiversity will have a major impact on the ability of humankind to feed itself in the future, a situation it says is far more serious for inhabitants of developing countries.
The report “State of the world’s plant genetic resources for food and agriculture”, which covers topics ranging from gene bank collections to the effects of climate change on crop diversity, is intended to highlight what is being done and needs to be done to protect biodiversity in food crops.
The report notes that genetic information held in certain crop varieties is crucial to the development of heat, drought, salinity, pest and diseases-resistant, fast-growing, high-yielding new varieties that are necessary to reduce food insecurity in the face of climate change.
FAO believes that increasing the sustainable use of plant diversity could be the main key for addressing risks to genetic resources for agriculture. It notes that there are thousands of wild relatives of crops that still need to be collected, studied and documented because they hold genetic secrets that enable them to withstand factors such as heat, droughts, salinity, and pests and diseases.
FAO estimates that during the last century, 75% of crop genetic diversity has been lost. This loss of genetic diversity in plant crops and animal breed is dangerous because it makes our food supply more vulnerable.
More could be lost forever unless we make special efforts not only to conserve but utilise them.
The western Pacific region, including PNG, is rich in plant genetic diversity and home to many food crops.
However, we face the same fate. Much of this biodiversity is eroding fast and special efforts are needed to minimise the situation we are confronted with. We need to take this seriously, especially with respect to the food crop diversity, as the crops in question are directly responsible for the livelihoods of our people.
Coupled with the loss of biodiversity is the lack of knowledge on how to collect, maintain and utilise the plant genetic resources.
The continued lack of investment in agriculture, particularly in agricultural research over the years, has inevitably led to a shortage of qualified agricultural scientists including plant breeders in the region. Public institutions in the region are struggling on this front and efforts are urgently required as better use of genetic resources and biodiversity in food crops is essential for future food security.
To address this issue, the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) has been conducting a series of training on capacity development in conservation and utilisation of plant genetic resources (PGR) in the region since 2010. This is part of the institute’s efforts towards building capacity and is being done in partnership with the Solomon Islands ministry of agriculture and livestock and the Vanuatu agricultural research and technical centre.
The areas covered in these series are focused on PGR collection and maintenance, characterisation and evaluation, conservation, screening and evaluation, pre-breeding techniques and breeding and utilisations.
NARI is conducting this training series with the aim to improve the human resource capacity in PGR conservation and utilisation in research and development institutions in the region.
A selected number of research officers from partner and associate organisations from three countries have been put through these trainings and they are expected to play an important role in PGR conservation and utilisation. The participants are also expected to become trainers of others in their respective organisations and countries.
We need to broaden our skills and knowledge to better use PGR and biodiversity of food crops for the benefit of society. PGR, which is an important area in science, has been left unattended for a while and building human resource capacity is essential.
This vital training series, through funding support from the EU ACP science and technology programme, would conclude at the end this year. But work on the PGR will continue.
Hopefully, this training series would lay the foundation for us to work together to better conserve and utilise our biodiversity in our efforts towards reducing food insecurity in the region.