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Genetic diversity: a tool to fight climate change

Genetic diversity: a tool to fight climate change

According to a new study published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), there is still much to be done to study, conserve and use the biological diversity that sustains world food production.

"Time is not on our side," warns the publication: Facing climate change: the role of genetic resources for food and agriculture. In this it highlights that "in the coming decades, millions of people whose livelihoods and food security depend on agriculture, aquaculture, fishing, forestry and livestock may face unprecedented climatic conditions."


The publication available in English can be downloaded by clicking on the following link: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3866e.pdf

FAO reports that crops, livestock, forest trees and aquatic organisms capable of surviving and producing in a changing climate will be necessary, a capacity that will be a direct result of their genetic diversity.

However, the study argues that greater efforts are required to study and use diversity as a survival mechanism, and policies to support it.

"In a world with higher temperatures and more variable and severe weather conditions, plants and animals destined for food must have the biological capacity to adapt more rapidly than before," warned María Helena Semedo, FAO Deputy Director General , in a press release issued by the agency.

"Preventing further losses of agricultural genetic resources - he added - and paying more attention to studying their potential will increase humanity's ability to adapt to climate change," added Semedo.

For FAO, this adaptive approach will require updating the objectives of agricultural improvement programs and in some cases the introduction of varieties, races and species that have not been used previously.

Furthermore, improvements are “urgently” needed in conservation programs on the ground (in situ) and elsewhere (ex-situ) of domestic species, their wild relatives and other wild genetic resources important for food and agriculture. , along with policies that promote their sustainable use.

It is also very important to develop knowledge about genetic resources for food and agriculture: where they are found, what are their characteristics (eg resistance to drought or disease) and how they can be better managed, according to the study.

According to what has been reported, it is essential to improve the knowledge, conservation and use of the wild relatives of the crops, “which are likely to have genetic traits that can be used to develop well-adapted crops for use in food systems affected by climate change. ”, Stated the entity.

"We need to strengthen the role of genetic resources and help farmers, fishermen and foresters to cope with climate change," said Linda Collette, senior editor of the volume and Secretary of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture of FAO, in the press release.

FAO reported that many locally adapted varieties and breeds of crops and livestock - as well as trees, fish, insects and microorganisms - are poorly documented and may be lost before their potential roles in adapting to climate change are recognized.

“Efforts must be made to avoid practices that destroy biodiversity or undermine the health of agricultural ecosystems. For example, the use of broad spectrum insecticides that have negative effects on pollinating insects ”, he pointed out.

Help evolution survive

FAO stresses that promoting the conservation of genetic diversity on farms and fields is as important as maintaining gene banks. Many life forms used in agriculture do not have a seed equivalent and can only be maintained through human intervention.

An example is the banana, a staple food for millions of people. In addition, in situ conservation (including crop wild relatives) is a way of "allowing evolution to continue" and thus ensuring that adaptive traits continue to be generated.

The entity argued that in situ conservation can take many forms, but the close involvement of farmers is particularly effective, especially as it is becoming increasingly clear that the consequences of climate change need to be considered locally, as well as globally. or regional.

For example, Ethiopia, where there are many microclimates, has an advanced and decentralized program based on community seed banks and germplasm through which farmers and researchers cooperate to test, adopt and conserve local varieties of the most important crops - barley, chickpea, sorghum and lima beans - which were almost lost during the drought of the 1980s.

Investigative work never ends

According to FAO, knowledge about agricultural genetic resources needs to increase more rapidly, especially in less studied sectors such as forests, where fewer than 500 species of trees (out of a total of more than 80,000) have been studied in depth. "The deficiencies in the knowledge of invertebrates and microorganisms are even greater", explained the organism.

Although they are often denigrated as agents of disease in crops and livestock, microorganisms provide a wide variety of functions, such as protecting plants against pests, drought, cold, and salinity.

Meanwhile, adequate genetic inventories are needed to provide an 'identity document' to the gene pool currently stored in seed banks and other ex-situ conservation centers in order to access the positive adaptive traits that may be required.

“Faced with the effects of climate change, it is more important today than ever to exchange and share more agricultural genetic resources. There are local and national seed fairs, but they will have to expand and internationalize as climate change accelerates, ”FAO reported.

Genetic resources and the time factor

The international organization reported that one of the aspects of climate change with a direct impact on genetic diversity has to do with changes in pressure over biological time.

For example, in pollination patterns it causes great concern, since insects are very sensitive to temperature and cannot always synchronize with the new flowering times. Additionally, rising temperatures can also favor species that can adapt to short generational cycles.

At the same time, it is calculated that an increase of 2 ° C in temperature would allow insects to complete up to five additional life cycles per season - according to the FAO study - which also indicates that pathogens capable of shortening their cycles Reproductive systems will likely be able to evolve more rapidly and pose greater potential challenges to various organisms and ecosystems.

In forested areas, invasive species could react more quickly to changing conditions, crowding out existing tree types.

A recent study using Arabidopsis thaliana, a weed related to mustard and the first plant to have its genome sequenced, showed how seeds stored in banks can also help understand that climate change is progressing faster than expected: Variants of the plant obtained in Spain performed better in Finland than the seeds that originally came from this Scandinavian country.

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