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Who Will Plant A Bumper Crop?

Crop diversity is essential but can’t be used if it hasn’t been preserved.

Words: Emily Tamkin

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

If you had a meal today (and if you did not, please go do that before finishing this), you relied on crop diversity. The very food systems that we need to stay nourished depend on crop diversity if they are to be resilient and sustainable. But crop diversity, write Hannes Dempewolf, Sarada Krishnan, and Luigi Guarino in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” can’t be used if it hasn’t been preserved.

The very food systems that we need to stay nourished depend on crop diversity if they are to be resilient and sustainable. But crop diversity can’t be used if it hasn’t been preserved.

In their article, “Our shared global responsibility: Safeguarding crop diversity for future generations,” the authors make the case that: “As the ways in which crop diversity is used in research and breeding change and expand, the global conservation system for crop diversity must keep pace; it must provide not only the biological materials themselves, but also the relevant information presented in a comprehensive and coherent way — all while ensuring equitable access and benefit sharing.”

The point of the piece is to “explore the evolving priorities for global efforts to safeguard and make available the diversity of the world’s crops through ex-situ genetic resource collections.”

Collections held outside standard gene banks, they argue, should be better integrated with other global resources. Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFAs) are believed by many to be increasingly important, but they cannot be used if they are not accessible and available. “Gene banks” have been set up around the world to store PGRFAs, but PGRFA networks are not always sufficiently funded, which is to say that the world is not working in concert as it ought to be.

The authors outline challenges for gene banks, which include preempting genetic erosion and making the most of the data that is available. And they concede that much of the work that needs to be done will not be done by gene banks, but insist it is impossible to do without it. And while the disparate way in which information is held is a challenge, so, too, is it a strength.

“There is much diversity among gene banks and their staff, and that is a great strength that must be fostered and embraced,” the authors write. “If they collaborate and share responsibilities, if they truly serve their users, and crucially, if they are properly resourced, gene banks will live long and prosper as will the PGRFAs in their care, the farmers on which they depend, and all of us who depend on farmers.” Which is to say, all of us.

Emily Tamkin

Emily Tamkin is a journalist based in Washington, DC. She is the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews.

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