Global biodiversity is vast. Scientists estimate there are about 300,000 plant species, 5,000 mammals, 10,000 birds and 30,000 fish, not to mention an astonishing 1 million insect species.
Not only can biodiversity be found in the wild, but it is also in our fields and on our plates. It’s called agrobiodiversity, and is the result of thousands of years of interactions between farmers and breeders, and the environment. As defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity, agrobiodiversity includes all components of biological diversity of relevance to food and agriculture, and all components of biological diversity that constitute the agricultural ecosystems: the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms, at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels, which are necessary to sustain key functions of the agroecosystem, its structure and processes.
Plant genetic resources – the diversity of traditional and modern crop species and varieties as well as crop wild relatives and other wild plant species that sustain agriculture and food systems, and the genetic material contained in them – are a key component of agrobiodiversity. They provide the building blocks for selecting or breeding crops that are more nutritious, productive and resilient to pests, diseases and environmental changes.
This vital asset is under threat due to multiple factors, including climate change, shifts in land-management practices and agricultural land use prompted by changing production systems as well as by regulation and marketing obstacles. The loss of these precious resources jeopardizes the long-term productivity, resilience and sustainability of agriculture and food systems.
Modern food systems tend to over-rely on a handful of major staple crops. Rice, wheat and maize alone provide more than 50% of the world’s plant-derived calories. Even though the wide cultivation of these staple crops offers an essential contribution to global food security and reduction of their prices, the over-reliance on a handful of species has inherent agronomic, environmental, nutritional and economic risks, and is unsustainable in the long run. The wider cultivation of today’s underutilized crops as well as an increased diversification of the production systems can provide more options for sustainability, nutritional quality, environmental benefit, climate change resilience and economic gain. To adapt to changing climatic conditions, we need to safeguard and sustainably use plant genetic resources, and facilitate their access by plant breeders and other users.
There are different ways to conserve plant genetic resources: in facilities called genebanks (ex situ conservation) but also on farms, in gardens and in nature (in situ conservation), where they continue to evolve and adapt to changing environments.
Since 1980, the European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources (ECPGR) works to ensure plant genetic resources long-term conservation, facilitate access to them and increase their sustainable use.
In collaboration with National Inventory Focal Points, ECPGR maintains the EURISCO database, a one-stop-shop for information on more than 2 million accessions of plant genetic resources conserved in European genebanks and other institutions. EURISCO enables users to search and access information on food crops, forages, wild-and-weedy species, including cultivars, landraces, breeding lines, genetic stocks and research material.
To translate the full potential of the plant genetic resources maintained by genebanks into breeding and cultivation practices, we need to increase our knowledge of their agronomic characteristics, quality traits, resistance to pests or diseases, and performance in different environments. In 2019, ECPGR established the European Evaluation Network (EVA). Through public–private partnerships and funding from the German Federal Ministry for Food and Agriculture, EVA is testing in multilocation trials all over Europe numerous accessions of carrot, lettuce, maize, pepper, wheat and barley available in European genebanks. The generated evaluation data as well as genetic data will be made available from EURISCO.
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A.D.Chapman (2009) Numbers of Living Species in Australia and the World. Australian Biodiversity Information Services, Toowoomba, Australia. Available at https://www.dcceew.gov.au/science-research/abrs/publications/other/numbers-living-species
Convention on Biological Diversity (2000). What is agricultural biodiversity (COP 5 Decision V/5). Available at https://www.cbd.int/agro/whatis.shtml
Ebert AW, Engels JMM. Plant Biodiversity and Genetic Resources Matter! Plants. 2020; 9(12):1706. https://doi.org/10.3390/plants9121706