Bioversity International: research for development in agricultural and tree biodiversity

Articles of new Elsevier special edition underline importance of tree genetic diversity

16 Feb 2015

By Judy Loo, Theme Leader, Conservation and Use of Forest and Tree Genetic Diversity, Bioversity International

The world has a Global Plan of Action for the Conservation, Sustainable Use and Development of Forest Genetic Resources*, based on the first report on State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources**, which was published in 2014. This monumental piece of work was, in turn, based on reports prepared by 86 countries, covering more than 85% of the globe’s forest area, and thematic background papers written by experts around the world. Scientific reviews, drawn from the background papers, were published in an open-access special issue of Forest Ecology and Management in December, 2014, co-edited by CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA) scientists. Together, these publications can guide informed action to conserve and sustainably use precious tree genetic diversity.

The term ’forest genetic resources‘ is a little misleading because all of these documents are about genetic diversity of trees – wild and semi-domesticated trees, in the forest and in agroforestry systems. The publications highlight the importance of tree genetic diversity, its erosion in all parts of the world, how it is being used and conserved and the needs for improved management.  

Why be concerned about genetic diversity of trees?

Some might say other urgent challenges warrant more attention – like climate change, degradation of productive lands, rural poverty – huge challenges facing humanity and the ecosystems that we all depend on. But, in fact, the genetic diversity of trees is a vital part of the solutions to each of those challenges. Scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) have recently shown that rural people’s livelihoods depend substantially on wild resources. Trees vary, both among and within species, in their tolerance to pests and diseases and an array of climatic and soil conditions – drought, heat, salinity, heavy metal toxicity as well as in the quality of their products. This presents great, but largely untapped, potential for improvement of nutritious food, fibres, solid wood, forage and a variety of other products and ecosystem services. Evaluating their diversity, conserving it, testing it and using it, is vital to ensuring future production and ecosystem services.

There are significant opportunities to save and use the genetic diversity of trees while it’s still available. The diversity of many trees is threatened, but even in degraded rural landscapes and cut-over forests there are trees that harbour important genetic diversity. Articles in the recently published special issue of Forest Ecology and Management describe the relevance of genetic diversity of trees for rural livelihoods, successful restoration, and responding to climate change. Other articles explore themes related to access to germplasm, impacts of forest management on genetic diversity, new approaches to ex situ conservation and methods for measuring and monitoring changes in evolutionary potential of trees within and outside of forests.

Against this backdrop, the Global Plan of Action is a call for government and non-governmental organizations and agencies, scientists, practitioners, educators and others to take action now, before it’s too late.

*Global Plan of Action for the Conservation, Sustainable Use and Development of Forest Genetic Resources

**State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources

Bioversity International’s forest genetic resources' research contributes to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry: Livelihoods, Landscapes and Governance, leading the theme on management and conservation of forest and tree resources.