The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) may not sound snappy, but its long-term aim is easily expressed: to act as a vegetable ark. Part of the treaty requires the developed world to fund the preservation of diverse species of food crop around the world.
The funding is provided by richer nations, which have often become variety poor, and given to other nations, which are often poorer but have a wide range of plants which could act as an ‘agricultural insurance’ by maintaining biodiversity in essential crops.
The crops being preserved in this way include potatoes in Peru, corn and beans in Cuba and oranges in Egypt. The varieties need to be preserved to ensure that the planet has a range of foods that are more likely to be able to adapt to challenges ranging from climate change to pollution, from salination to the loss of pollinators like insects to the ability to resist diseases and predators.
Up to 90% of vegetable variety has been lost
Four basic food staples: rice, wheat, corn and potatoes make up more than half the total foodstuffs eaten on the planet, and in this group of staple foods, less than 150 varieties are grown commercially. Wheat has just five major varieties now grown globally on a commercial scale, of the more than 700 recorded varieties, many of which have been lost and others of which are only grown by hobby farmers or in remote districts where the ‘big five’ will not thrive. China alone has lost nearly 90% of the wheat varieties that were grown across the country sixty years ago and India grows only 10% of the rice varieties that appeared in its fields a hundred years ago.
This is not just a loss of diversity – a limited range of varieties means that those grown are more liable to damage by pests or disease. It also leaves many countries open to price hikes in the recently globalised commodity markets, meaning that many people simply cannot afford to buy the staple foods that used to grow in the fields around their houses.
ITPGRFA set up the Svalbard seed-bank last year, and now that a repository for 1.1 million plant varieties exists, it is focusing on the very many crops that can’t have their variety maintained in a seed bank, such as tuberous crops like potatoes.
International treaties depend on funding and have no national accountability
For a long time this part of the ITPGRFA programme looked as if it would never get off the ground because for five years the parties who were funding the seed conservation initiative couldn’t agree how to finance the on-site part of the project nor on contracts that guarantee any commercial use of the diverse species will bring financial benefit to the nations that have been conserving them. And perhaps the best news of all, for those already involved in ITPGRFA, is that the USA may be willing to join the scheme after expressing no interest in it under the previous administration.