Blue corn, red and black beans, avocados the size of an ostrich egg: Mesoamerica is the birthplace of a wide range of agricultural biodiversity – crops that are important not only to local cultures, cuisines and livelihoods, but globally for food security.
How will these crops and their wild relatives cope in the face of climate change and increasing environmental stresses? The potential is certainly there; this diversity could help farmers adapt, if not thrive in a scenario of unpredictability. But will that happen when current mechanisms to ensure the use and conservation of genetic resources are scattered and uncoordinated? If genetic resources and climatic stresses are not limited to political boundaries, surely coping mechanisms based on genetic diversity should be a joint initiative?
In response to this, Bioversity International and partners have spent over a year gathering data and consulting with more than 100 regional stakeholders to develop an action plan to strengthen the role of plant genetic resources in adapting to climate change in Mesoamerica. The result: a 10-year roadmap now available in both English and Spanish: 'SAPM – Strategic action plan to strengthen conservation and use of Mesoamerican plant genetic resources in adapting agriculture to climate change'.
Creating the plan required a thorough scientific diagnosis on the current state of plant genetic resources in the region to form the basis of decisions made by the consultation group. What genetic diversity exists in the region? Where are the concentrations of crop wild relatives? How will climate change affect areas where important crops are grown? In order to make the data manageable, the diagnosis focused on 10 crop gene pools, representing 26 crop species and more than 350 crop wild relatives of Zea, Phaseolus, Manihot, Ipomoea, Cucurbita, Amaranthus, Capsicum, Carica, Persea and Tripsacum.
"We are very pleased to see that the diagnosis is already being used by scientists," says Marleni Ramirez, coordinator of the SAPM from Bioversity International. "Guatemala’s national programme for example, is using our study to fill collection gaps of Cucurbita and will later do so with Capsicum."
The SAPM is gathering momentum throughout the region. It has already been adopted by the region's Ministries of Agriculture through the Central American Agricultural Council (CAC), and is guiding projects by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). It is also influencing national genetic resource plans – Guatemala is currently reforming its national seed legislation and starting a project to support farmers’ rights in light of actions contained in the plan.
"The SAPM complements and reinforces Guatemala’s national plan," says Sergio Alonso from the Collaborative Program on Participatory Plant Breeding in Mesoamerica. "It is an instrument to raise this issue before governments and scale up our own activities to the national level."
Many stakeholders, including farmers, NGOs and academics that are not often invited to multisectoral meetings, welcomed the participatory process as a breath of fresh air. "Not only are we creating alliances between different sectors," says Juanita Chavez from the International Treaty (ITPGRFA). "But the SAPM is also saying: 'you have to be more consistent with each other, strengthen capacity, and improve not only the collection and understanding of your genetic resources, but also document it better and make that information open access'."
Although only 10 gene pools were prioritized in the scientific diagnosis for their importance to food, livelihood and nutrition security, the strategies of the SAPM are relevant for all plant genetic resources in the region, and beyond. The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) is considering the SAPM to help sharpen their 'Guidelines for Preparation of National Strategies for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture', which will advise governments in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
But first, things are already moving forward in Mesoamerica. "Our region is very rich in agricultural biodiversity," says William Solano from CATIE. “These guidelines are the key to how we can conserve and use these materials. For what we do not conserve and use, we lose. And if we lose them, how will we face the challenges of agriculture and climate change?”
For more info and supporting documents, please visit: itzamna-mesoamerica.org
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture financed the development of the SAPM through its Benefit-Sharing Fund. The SAPM contributes to the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security.