“Carrying out superficial repairs to our existing food systems will no longer suffice. We need disruptive change within and across today’s varied and complex food systems. To be sustainable, food system policy choices must focus on environmental as well as nutritional and health consequences.” This was the stark warning from experts at the 44th Session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS44) in October 2017.
That this disruptive change needs to include agricultural biodiversity was the central message in Bioversity International’s flagship book published this year. Mainstreaming Agrobiodiversity in Sustainable Food Systems: Scientific Foundations for an Agrobiodiversity Index presents the most recent scientific evidence on how to use agricultural biodiversity in diets and in production systems to help achieve sustainable food systems.
In Bioversity International's 2017 Annual Report, we celebrate our science, our partners, and how #agrobiodiversity nourishes people and sustains the planet @JMartonLefevre @AnnTutwiler @BioversityInt
Agricultural biodiversity is the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture.
Bioversity International's vision is that agricultural biodiversity nourishes people and sustains the planet. Our mission is to deliver scientific evidence, management practices and policy options to use and safeguard agricultural and tree biodiversity to attain sustainable global food and nutrition security. Below are some research highlights from 2017 linked to our four strategic objectives which are to diversify diets, production systems, seeds and planting material, and to safeguard agricultural biodiversity.
In the research highlights section of the Annual Report, you will find ten stories based on scientific papers produced by Bioversity International scientists working with partners.
These highlights represent just a small selection of the 169 papers produced in 2017.
Bioversity International works with partners around the world including a wide range of funders and research partners who share our vision and mission to deliver scientific evidence, management practices and policy options to use and safeguard agricultural and tree biodiversity to attain sustainable global food and nutrition security.
Bioversity International is proud to be a CGIAR Research Centre. We participate in six CGIAR Research Programs and two Platforms supported by CGIAR Trust Fund members in close collaboration with the other 14 CGIAR Centres and hundreds of partner organizations, including national and regional research institutes, civil society organizations, academia and the private sector.
We thank all of our partners for their critical and continued support.
Mobilizing funds for international agricultural research remains challenging. Nonetheless, Bioversity International’s overall revenue from bilateral grants has grown by 21% since 2012 – the highest level of bilateral funding ever! We thank all of our funders for their critical and continued support.
In 2017, our relationships with the governments of Belgium, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Peru and Switzerland were further strengthened. Our partnerships with multilateral organizations keen to mainstream agrobiodiversity in sustainable food systems such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), European Commission (EC), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UN Environment and the Global Environment Facility have also been strengthened, as has our support from foundations. These commitments are complemented by many other supporters of our work who are listed in this report.
We would also like to highlight important additional in-kind contributions of facilities and experts from Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit of Leuven and the governments of China, Germany, India, and Italy among others. We estimate the value of in-kind contributions amounted to at least $5 million in 2017.
For more information, download our 2017 Financial Statements
Braulio Ferreira de Souza Dias
M. Ann Tutwiler
Douglas van den Aardweg
Bioversity International created a UK registered charity (no. 1131854) in October 2008 to increase awareness and support for its research agenda and activities. Bioversity International UK is governed by an independent Board of Trustees.
M. Ann Tutwiler
Bioversity International USA, Inc aims to engage and inspire a wide range of partners and donors to ensure that agricultural biodiversity nourishes people and sustains the planet. It is led by a committed and highly regarded Board of Trustees:
M. Ann Tutwiler
Writing: Arwen Bailey, Jeremy Cherfas, Samantha Collins, Mirna Franic, Marta Millere, with contributions from many of our scientists
Contributors: Nora Capozio, Oonagh Darby, Maria Garruccio, Karen Harmann, Annie Huie, Allison Poulos
Design: Pablo Gallo
Web Editor: Carol Blay
Project Manager: Samantha Collins
Conserving plant genetic resources in farmers' fields so that they can evolve with changing conditions is often said to be a good thing, yet without very much evidence. A new study examines the case for in situ conservation, marshalls the evidence and raises important questions.
Two complementary approaches
For more than a century, scientists have tried to safeguard agricultural biodiversity by collecting crop samples and keeping them under the best possible conditions in genebanks. This ex situ conservation is absolutely vital to plant breeding, but it is not enough.
Since the 1970s, researchers have also argued that plant genetic resources of crops and their wild relatives need to be conserved in situ by farmers as a necessary complement to genebanks.
Genebanks conserve a snapshot of existing genetic diversity, frozen in time. In situ conservation, by contrast, allows crops and their wild relatives to evolve in response to changing climatic and environmental conditions. Genebank samples – no matter how carefully maintained – will inevitably lose some diversity in storage. Whereas in farmers’ hands crops will produce new variations and rare traits will be preserved. Evolution, in other words, justifies efforts to support in situ conservation.
That is the theory, but evidence is scarce. A team of Bioversity International researchers working with partners, including a former member of the organization’s Board of Trustees, reviewed past research and concluded that there is “strong support for the evolutionary rationale” for in situ conservation.
The clearest evidence comes from the arms race between plants and pathogens.
Often in the case of biotic changes, such as disease, a plant’s resistance to a pathogen is based on a single gene. If a different strain of the pathogen appears, it will select a version of the resistance gene that may have been previously quite rare in the population. Given sufficient time and selection pressure, rare alleles may become more common and common alleles become rarer in a dynamic fashion that could never happen in a genebank. Indeed, in the genebank there is a risk that, purely by chance, a very rare allele will fail to be captured when a sample is regenerated.
Plants’ responses to abiotic changes, such as drought or higher temperatures, are liable to be slower, because they usually involve a suite of many genes. Nevertheless, the fact that many genes are involved also means that there is great potential for change, and when needed, change can be very rapid. The team points to a study of pearl millet samples collected 27 years apart, from the Sahel region in Africa. When different farmers’ varieties were grown under the same conditions, changes in features like plant size and flowering time were apparent. These changes represent responses to recurrent drought during this period and farmer selection.
Many smallholder farmers work hard to ensure that their families have enough to eat, and to do so they grow traditional varieties in traditional ways. However, what might be called ‘de facto’ conservation faces increasing obstacles.
Markets may prefer just a few varieties, while many countries are attempting to prevent the informal seed exchanges on which smallholder farmers depend. At the same time as promoting informal seed systems, Bioversity International has also pioneered specific incentive schemes to encourage in situ conservation. Both of these approaches are essential to support in situ conservation.
In situ conservation is not just about domesticated crops. Wild plant species related to crops, known as crop wild relatives, are also indispensable for our future food security. Untended by humans, crop wild relatives continue to evolve in the wild, developing traits – such as drought tolerance or pest resistance – that can be incorporated into domesticated crops through breeding.
In addition, crop wild relatives contribute to the in situ evolution of crop diversity in areas where both are present. For example, there is evidence that the natural geneflow between wild species and domesticated crops contributed to shape the diversity of apple, almond and maize among others. There is also evidence that new plants collected in the wild are regularly incorporated into the domesticated plots, for example in subsistence crops such as yams.
Having made a case that in situ conservation is indeed important for future crop adaptation, the researchers turn their attention to gaps in our knowledge. For example:
- How thoroughly do genebank accessions reflect the total diversity in farmers’ fields?
- How quickly can plant populations respond to pathogens?
- What are the limits to a plant population’s adaptability?
- Is it possible to model how the various management practices applied by farmers to crops in situ, including plant selection, actually affect the genetic diversity present in a population?
Getting answers to these questions would help design realistic interventions that can both help the farmers secure their food supply and ensure that plant breeders have the agricultural biodiversity they need to meet future challenges.
In situ and ex situ conservation approaches are complementary and essential
Ex situ conservation of plant genetic resources is an important endeavor that provides security for loss of crop diversity in the field and ease of access, and hence usage, for research and crop improvement. It can also allow reintroduction into their natural habitat when the species or crops have disappeared.
In situ conservation on farm remains a vital part of ensuring germplasm availability for use by future generations through the combination of evolution that happens between the crop, the environment and the human selection component. It also ensures the conservation of less well-collected species such as many crop wild relatives and large numbers of neglected and underutilized species with little or no representation in ex situ collections.
But it is not enough to have just a few farmers engaged in in situ conservation. Scale matters. As the authors of the study note, this area needs a lot more attention if we are to conserve the crop diversity that is essential for our future food security.
This paper was co-written by Bioversity International scientists Ehsan Dulloo, Julie Sardos and Imke Thormann, Bioversity International scientist Mauricio Bellon working jointly with the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity in Mexico (CONABIO) and by former Bioversity International Board Member, Jeremy Burdon.
Citation: Bellon, M.R.; Dulloo, E.; Sardos, J.; Thormann, I.; Burdon, J.J. (2017) In situ conservation—harnessing natural and human-derived evolutionary forces to ensure future crop adaptation. Evolutionary Applications 10 (10). p. 965–977. ISSN: 1752-4571; http://hdl.handle.net/10568/89681
On the farm and on the wild side: Why #crop evolution is essential for food security - @BioversityInt study with partners finds strong support for evolutionary rationale for in situ conservation
Study shows it is not enough that just a few #farmers do in situ conservation. Scale matters if we are to conserve the #cropdiversity that is essential for our future #foodsecurity
This research was supported by the ‘Contribución de la Biodiversidad al Cambio Climático’ of the Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).