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Crop Diversity: A Climate Change Solution

Crop Diversity: A Climate Change Solution

Due to the El Niño weather phenomenon droughts has forced the farmers to postpone the farming of Cassava. Cauca, Colombia. (Photo: Juan Arredondo/Reportage by Getty Images for Crop Trust)

18 September 2023

The climate crisis is upon us, and its effects are becoming impossible to ignore. Extreme heatwaves, more frequent floods, and prolonged droughts are wreaking havoc on our planet. Including our food supply: agriculture depends on the climate. 

However, there is good news. Crop diversity and genebanks offer a global solution that can be tailored to regional needs.

Genebanks are treasure troves of agricultural biodiversity. They bring together and safeguard a vast array of varieties of many different crops along with vital information about them. But they’re not museums: these seed repositories serve as a lifeline for farmers, plant breeders, and researchers, ensuring access to valuable diversity regardless of the challenges posed by a changing climate. 

Adapting to Climate Change

An excellent example comes from potato farming. Late blight, a devastating microorganism responsible for significant crop losses around the world, has been invigorated by warming climates. In response, working with farmers in Peru, the International Potato Center (CIP), with support from the Crop Trust, developed CIP-Matilde. This new potato variety combines disease resistance from wild relatives stored in the CIP genebank with the desirable qualities of successful domesticated potato varieties. This success story highlights genebanks’ crucial role in enabling agriculture to adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

Mitigating Climate Change

Crop diversity isn't just about adapting to climate change; it can also help mitigate its impact. For instance, alfalfa is an important crop in many regions, providing livestock with nutritious food, even under challenging conditions. As our population grows and agricultural land becomes scarcer, livestock and forage production shift to less fertile soils. The Crop Wild Relatives Project, led by the Crop Trust, identified wild species of alfalfa adapted to unfavorable environments and used them to develop new varieties that thrive in extreme conditions. These alfalfa varieties not only save water but also add nitrogen to the soil and provide vital nutrients to livestock, contributing to sustainability efforts and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Emergency Support

While genebanks are vital in facing the climate crisis, they are not immune to its effects. Natural disasters, political crises, and equipment failures can threaten their work. Recognizing this vulnerability, the Crop Trust established an Emergency Reserve for Genebanks in collaboration with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. This initiative provides rapid support to genebanks facing emergencies, ensuring their invaluable contents remain intact.

The urgency of adapting agriculture to climate change cannot be overstated. Crop diversity, safeguarded in genebanks worldwide, offers hope. By preserving their diversity, we can create climate-resilient crops, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and ensure food security for generations to come.

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