While protected areas such as national parks have been established to conserve charismatic animal and plant species, very few have been set aside to protect wild plants from which our crops originate, a WWF report reveals.
The report, Food Stores: Using protected areas to secure crop genetic diversity, published with the University of Birmingham in the UK, found that the centres of diversity of principal cultivated plants are poorly protected.
Many of these centres have only five per cent protection, some have only one per cent or less. They include: the Central Andean wet puna of Peru and Bolivia, well known as reservoirs of grains and root crops including the potato; the Eastern Anatolian deciduous forests and steppe of Iran, Turkey and Armenia, centres of diversity for many grains and fruit species; the Southern Korea evergreen forests important for their genetic resources of tea; and the Malaysian rainforests which are centres of diversity for many tropical fruit species, particularly mangoes.
"Crop wild relatives and varieties are the world's repositories of crop genetic diversity and vital in ensuring future food security," said Duncan Pollard, Director of WWF's Global Forest Programme.
"With world population increasing and at a time of rapid environmental changes due to climate change, it is crucial that we conserve the widest possible natural genetic base of our food crops."
Seed banks, where genetic resources are conserved under controlled conditions, can help in times of change. However, they are unable to conserve the full range of crop genetic diversity because of the sheer number of seed samples involved.
"Crop wild relatives and traditional varieties, which continue to evolve in their natural environment, are better placed to provide the necessary genetic materials to combat new pests or plant diseases," Pollard added.
Traditional farmers, who have contributed to crop diversity for millenniums, often can no longer do so as they abandon traditional farming systems for modern techniques and more genetically uniform crop varieties.
Communities that lose locally-bred varieties and the knowledge of how to grow them, risk losing control of their farming systems and becoming dependent on outside sources of seeds and the inputs needed to grow and protect them.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, about 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has already been lost in the last century.
Loss of traditional varieties has important implications for social equity. Also, the loss of varieties bred to cope with local climatic conditions can impact the ability of impoverished communities to survive periods of drought or other atypical conditions.
In addition to more protection of our crop genetic diversity is the need for more protected area funding.
"A tiny fraction of profits from the companies dominating the agribusiness market would considerably boost the budgets, and thus increase protection, of many of the world's under-resourced protected areas which conserve important crop genetic resources," Pollard said.
"Governments should also be encouraged to expand and strengthen their existing protected areas network to include crop diversity conservation."
WWF calls on all those who rely on crop genetic resources and diversity to formulate strategies that promote conservation of crop wild relatives and traditional varieties. They should work together to conserve this vital element of biodiversity, and help secure global food security, especially for the world's poorest.
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