Food Stores: Using Protected Areas to Secure Crop Genetic Diversity

Posted on 30 June 2007

A research report by WWF, Equilibrium and the University of Birmingham, UK
A research report by WWF, Equilibrium and the University of Birmingham, UK

Written by Sue Stolton, Nigel Maxted, Brian Ford-Lloyd, Shelagh Kell, and Nigel Dudley

Executive summary (extracts):

Plant genetic resources are a threatened but invaluable resource for present and future generations. Crop genetic diversity – both in cultivated plants (landraces) and the wild plants from which our crops originate (crop wild relatives or CWR) – provide important resources for food security, environmental sustainability and economic stability.

It is thus perhaps surprising, considering this socio-economic importance that the conservation of CWR has not been systematically addressed and the rapid declines in landraces have generated little international conservation concern.

Estimates of the global value associated with the use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture vary from hundreds of millions to tens of billions of US dollars per year. Whatever the exact economic value, we do know that when agricultural disasters occur, plant genetic resources can provide solutions. For example, the corn blight which halved US yields in the 1970s was alleviated by use of genetic material from a wild relative.

But these vital safeguards are under threat. As more and more land is converted to meet human needs, the natural world is lost … including in some cases our CWR. Landraces are also disappearing at alarming rates as agriculture becomes standardised and small farms are swallowed up in bigger developments. More insidious threats, such as climate change and contamination from genetically modified organisms, may further undermine our agricultural stability.

Protected areas can play a role in in situ conservation strategies of agricultural genetic diversity. Although the links between food security and protected areas have rarely been made explicit, our research demonstrates that protected areas are important in maintaining stability in agricultural systems. Just as botanic gardens in countries with colder climates often stimulate interest in the general public by including specimens of crops to show what a banana, coffee or rice plant looks like, so protected area managers can raise the profile of their protected areas by paying particular attention to native CWR species and advertising their presence to the potential user communities.

Many protected areas also encompass cultivated lands and increasing recognition of the social, environmental and economic value of landraces adds an important dimension to the values of these areas. In particular, this report therefore looks at how protected area managers can find which CWR species are present in the protected area they manage and how they might adapt management practices to facilitate conservation of CWR and landraces.

The report also includes an analysis of the protection status of those ecoregions, as identified by WWF, which are particularly important for the conservation of crop genetic diversity. In total 29 (82 per cent) of the 34 ecoregions that include major centres of crop diversity have protection levels of under 10 per cent, and six areas (18 per cent) have protection levels of one per cent or less. Coupled with evidence of high levels of habitat conversion in many of these areas, it would seem that governments and the international community should be giving far higher priority to crop genetic diversity when deciding the location of protected areas.
Food Stores report cover page
Food Stores: Using Protected Areas to Secure Crop Genetic Diversity
© WWF / Udo Hirsch / Vin J. Toledo