Conservation of Crop Genetic Resources in the Face of Climate Change

Bellagio, Italy

Conference report

Agriculture is the human enterprise most dependent on climate and natural resources, and is thus the sector that has the most to gain or lose from short- or long-run changes in the level or variability of climate. A growing literature seeks to understand the probable effects of climate change on agriculture, and improvements in our understanding of climate dynamics and crop response has begun to reduce some of the uncertainties inherent in projecting future impacts on agriculture. Nevertheless, there has been scant research conducted on the climate impacts on various crops and agroecosystems of central importance to the global poor. Furthermore, much of the existing literature assumes that farmers will automatically adapt to climate change and thereby lessen many of its potential negative impacts, taking for granted the monumental past efforts at the collection, preservation, and utilization of plant genetic resources on which much of farmer adaptation has historically depended.

Given potentially large changes in global temperature, regional precipitation patterns, and extreme weather events, we believe it is dangerous to assume that adaptation of cultivars will happen automatically. Extensive crop breeding that relies on access to genetic resources will almost certainly be required for crop adaptation under conditions of global climate change. Furthermore, substantial knowledge and insight is needed to gauge what types of diversity now exist in the gene banks, and what will be needed in the future. Fundamental questions remain to be addressed, for example: How are regional patterns of climate expected to change in the future, and how will these changes affect agro-ecosystems around the world? There are also several strategic investment issues to consider--which traits, which crops and which regions should be central to strategic decisions on ex situ genetic conservation? What steps should be taken to conserve the genetic diversity of the important but neglected minor crops where the number of accessions is currently low? Answers to these questions will be critical for promoting food security and ensuring human survival, and to date have received little or no attention in the scientific literature or broader policy arena.

This conference will seek to answer three main questions:

1) What and where are the largest threats to agro-ecosystems under future climate change? Here we will seek to identify both the nature and the location of the largest probable threats, a topic that to date has not been systematically undertaken for certain areas of interest.

2) Taken individually and together, what do these threats imply for crop genetic diversity on a regional or global level? I.e. which traits, which crops and which regions appear central to strategic decisions on ex situ genetic conservation?

3) What is the current state of genetic conservation with respect to these threats, and what does this imply about the sequencing of future efforts at ex situ conservation focus? For example, are there a set of minor crops important to food security that are both poorly represented in the gene banks and under great threat from future climate change?

Particular attention will be paid to those crops and cropping systems on which food insecure populations currently depend, and who would be least able to adapt in the absence of concerted public action to the contrary. We expect that this effort will be the first serious attempt to link crop genetic resource conservation to climate change and variability.

» A news article on recent investments being made by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, decisions which were informed by the Bellagio meeting.