Include genes in climate change plans, urges FAO

Climate crops genomics.jpg
Copyright: Andrew McConnell / Panos

Speed read

  • Having the right seeds and breeds can assist in climate change adaptation
  • Gene banks and research are crucial to safeguard key genes, say FAO guidelines
  • One suggestion is to use climate models to predict threats to genetic diversity

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The UN is mooting the inclusion of genetic resources in guidelines for national climate change adaptation plans to support food security in developing countries.

Guidelines adopted this month by the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture within the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) set out step-by-step advice for safeguarding a healthy gene pool. This includes ensuring access to a wide variety of plant, animal and microbe species through seed banks, environmental protection programmes and research.

The guidelines chime with advice from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which helps countries create national adaptation plans. But according to an FAO statement, it remains to be seen whether the FAO’s guidelines will become an official part of the UNFCCC guidelines on national adaptation plans. The FAO commission is pushing for this to happen, it said in its statement. 

“Having the right seeds and breeds is absolutely essential for climate change adaptation.”

Linda Collette, Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture 

Similar guidelines already exist for health and water issues, so it is time that genetic resources are acknowledged in the adaptation process, says Linda Collette, the secretary of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

“People do not realise the importance of genetic resources in the climate change debate,” she says.

“Having the right seeds and breeds is absolutely essential for climate change adaptation.”

Within the DNA of the world’s species lie genes that can help mainstream crops become more productive and resistant to harsh conditions, she says. For instance, a gene found in a traditional rice species helps commercial varieties deal better with floods. So-called scuba rice, which can survive being submerged for up to two weeks, is now grown by five million farmers.

The voluntary guidelines aim to instil in policymakers a sense that good climate change policy safeguards biological richness. Ideally, these policymakers would then create a national adaptation plan that takes genetic resources into account, the FAO hopes. Suggestions in the guidelines include using climate scenarios to predict where threats to genetic diversity will come from, and assessing how national economic and social policies affect access to plants and livestock. 

But Rima Alcadi, an advisor at UN agency the International Fund for Agricultural Development, believes that a top-down approach can only protect genetic diversity so far. Up to 90 per cent of seed propagation and protection in developing countries is informal, she points out. Therefore, she says, giving local communities a central role in their conservation is essential.

“There needs to be a two-way flow from the farmer all the way up,” says Alcadi.

Achim Dobermann, director of Rothamsted Research, a UK-based agricultural research centre, has more fundamental concerns about how countries protect genetic diversity. Governments often preserve their genetic resources by sharing less with other countries, he warns.

Ultimately, this protectionism could harm research, which relies on accessing the most-promising genes, no matter where they naturally exist, he says.

> Link to Coping with Climate Change – the Roles of Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture