FAO: Better crop genebanks mean better food security

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

Plant genetic resources are a strategic resource at the heart of sustainable crop production, says FAO assistant director-general
Plant genetic resources are a strategic resource at the heart of sustainable crop production, says FAO assistant director-general

Related tags Agriculture Food and agriculture organization

The FAO wants to improve standards across the world’s genebanks to improve the conservation of crop diversity which in turn means securing resilient global food supplies.

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s publication, 'Genebank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture' ​has outlined voluntary standards on how genebanks should store seeds and other materials used to reproduce plants, as well as communicate information with others.

These standards, it said, would ensure well-managed genebanks that would help preserve genetic diversity that can then be used by breeders and other scientists to develop improved crop varieties, including those adapted to agro-ecological conditions.

“Genebanks help bridge the past and the future by ensuring the continued availability of plant genetic resources for research and for breeding new varieties that meet the consumers’ continually evolving needs and changing climate,”​ said Linda Collette, secretary of FAO’s intergovernmental Commission on genetic resources for food and agriculture.

“They help us to conserve plant genetic resources and to improve them; they also help countries to share and exchange genetic resources with each other,”​ she continued.

Securing sustainable food systems

The FAO’s assistant director-general Ren Wang said such guidelines would play a crucial part in ensuring a sustainable and resilient food supply, particularly as the global population continues to grow.

“Meeting this challenge will require a continued stream of improved crops and varieties adapted to particular agro-ecosystem conditions. The loss of genetic diversity reduces the options for sustainably managing resilient agriculture, in the face of adverse environments, and rapidly fluctuating meteorological conditions,”​ Wang wrote in the publication.

He said plant genetic resources were a strategic resource at the heart of sustainable crop production.

Standards also cover in vitro testing
Standards also cover in vitro testing

Voluntary, non-binding international standards

Globally, more than seven million samples of seeds, tissues and other plant-propagating materials from food crops are safeguarded in around 1,750 genebanks.

While the world’s genebanks differ greatly in the size of collections and human and financial resources, the FAO said the standards would help genebank managers strike a balance between scientific objectives, resources available and the objective conditions under which they work.

The standards address a wide range of issues, including techniques for collecting samples; consistent labelling; protection from fungi, bacteria, pests and physical stress factors; viability and genetic integrity testing; and developing strategies to rapidly multiply samples for distribution.

The voluntary, non-binding standards stress the importance of securing and sharing material in line with national and international regulations, the FAO added. The full publication can be found HERE​.

European Parliament and regulation

Today (January 30) the environment committee in the European Parliament passed an opinion rejecting a proposal for a regulation on the production and making available on the market of seeds and other plant reproductive material (PRM). The Socialist & Democrats (S&D) Group also plans to vote against the regulation when the main report is voted on by the agriculture committee on February 11. 

MEP Pavel Poc, and S&D shadow rapporteur for the environment committee's opinion, said: "The regulation is too technical and too complex. The 'one size fits all' approach does not meet the requirements of the broad variety of existing plant reproductive material nor the needs of operators, consumers and competent authorities.

"It intends to merge 12 sectorial directives into one regulation. In theory it would simplify things, but in reality the new text does not take into account the biological particularities of the plants.

"Some of the restrictive rules go against species varieties because they mix commercial and non-commercial purposes. Old or rare varieties – in reality: all non-industrial vegetables, fruits and crops – do not fulfil the biological criteria of industrial plants, so they would not pass the registration for the main market."

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