There has been a dramatic erosion of crop diversity over the last century as a result of globalization trends and the promotion of Green Revolution practices aimed to increase yields through simplification of production systems. Thousands of edible plant species have been harvested and developed by agrarian communities through careful seed selection and saving throughout history. Yet modern agriculture has focused on the improvement and promotion of a mere handful of staple crops, in particular rice, wheat and maize, for which a small number of modern varieties now dominate production systems and diets around the globe.
The neglected and underutilized species, overlooked by agricultural development, are central features in traditional food cultures and are vital for the survival of many rural communities farming in marginal lands. Nevertheless, these crops are being cultivated by fewer and fewer farmers; falling out of favour because they cannot match the productivity and market potential of introduced crops. Wild and semi-domesticated fruits, nuts, tubers and leafy vegetables, which provide important nutritional contributions to many rural populations, are also threatened by habitat loss and degradation. Lack of interest by younger generations means that the seeds and knowledge on neglected and underutilized species are not being transmitted and are at risk of being lost irreversibly.
The simplification of production systems is highly problematic for the sustainability and nutritional value of our food systems. Different flavors and forms of food plants are not only vital to our cultural experience and heritage, their diversity also underpins the productivity, stability and adaptability of agricultural systems. Realizing the need for more sustainable and nutritious diets and faced with the challenge of climate change, there is growing awareness at grassroots, national and international levels of the urgent need to conserve crop genetic resources and to encourage diversification of production systems to strengthen food security.
Over the past decades, a commendable effort to conserve crop diversity has resulted in the establishment of more than 1,700 genebanks around the world that safeguard over 7.4 million crop samples. These valuable ex situ conservation efforts must be complemented, however, by parallel actions that encourage the maintenance of crop diversity in farmers’ fields and enhance its use to unleash its nutrition, livelihood and sustainability benefits. On-farm conservation enables the continuation of dynamic processes of crop adaptation to shifts in the environmental and socio-cultural context and also facilitates the preservation of knowledge that is essential to the cultural valorization of the crops.
The critical importance of strengthening on-farm conservation is well recognized but developing sound methodology presents a great challenge as the drivers of crop diversity erosion are society-wide and global. Markets, policies, environmental, social and environmental factors interactively motivate farmers choices to plant or abandon their traditional seeds. Hence action is required at all these levels in order to achieve an impact.
We are developing and testing tools to support the on-farm conservation of neglected and underutilized species across a multitude of projects. Approaches that have been explored include:
On-farm conservation is a key research area for Bioversity International that is not only focused on neglected and underutilized species. Visit the Bioversity International webpage for full information on their research concerning on-farm conservation.