Ahead of his presentation at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit this September, Stefan Schmitz, Executive Director at the Crop Trust spoke to us around the company’s work with genebanks to preserve crop diversity and secure future food supplies.

Stefan Schmitz, Executive Director, CROP TRUST & former Deputy Director-General and Commissioner, One World – Not Hunger, BMZ
Stefan Schmitz, Executive Director, CROP TRUST

What is the current status of crop diversity?

Crop diversity is key to ensuring the effective functioning and resilience of our food systems, and thus the long-term sustainability of our food supply. Crop diversity is, unfortunately, in rapid decline. With the well-documented ongoing loss of locally-adapted, resilient, traditional heirloom varieties, and of their wild relatives, the world is losing critical options for the future.
  • For example, Mexico, where maize originated, has lost 80% of its maize varieties since the 1930s
  • 17% of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction
  • China has lost 90% of rice varieties since 1950
  • India has lost 90% of rice varieties since 1900
  • USA has lost 90% of fruit and vegetable varieties since 1900
  • In Germany, all apples grown now originate from only 6 varieties

There is, however, a solution that is simple, effective, relatively cheap, and doable. That solution is genebanks.

The Crop Trust operates the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and works with international seed vaults to conserve and protect the genetic diversity of valuable seeds for future generations. How are you using innovative tools and technologies to progress the science of conservation? What investments are needed to translate sustainability into practice?

A critical component in making the Global System work is the availability of good quality data. Genesys, the online portal for accession-level data, provides a means for genebanks worldwide to share passport and characterization data on their collections, as part of the Plant Treaty’s Global Information System.

In addition, the Crop Trust is actively promoting the use of cryopreservation as a means to preserve crops that are propagated vegetatively. Cryopreservation is the optimal method to maintain genetic resources of such crops safely in the long-term.

Unfortunately, while there are abundant studies on how to cryopreserve plant genetic resources, only a handful of institutes have succeeded in cryopreserving collections on a large scale. This is due to the lack of investment in transforming research into routine application.

How is the Crop Trust working to bring diversity back into the food system? Why is this important in a changing climate? Why is it important for business?

Loss of crop diversity poses a considerable risk to global food security. The climate is changing and with it the likelihood of crop failure, including due to the emergence of new pests and diseases. Meeting these challenges will only be possible if the genetic diversity contained in crops and their wild relatives remains available for use. With the use of genebanks and ex situ conservation, crop diversity is able to be both preserved and also redistributed back into the food system through the breeding of new varieties and farmer use.

Conservation is not just relevant to the public sector. Even though the genetic diversity of crops is a public good, its long-term availability is quintessential for businesses as well. Climate change, land degradation, population growth and other risks associated with ongoing market trends, bring additional pressure to the value chains of seed companies, food processors and retailers. Access to the wealth of genetic traits that exist within and between crops can bring solutions to these companies, in developing new, resilient and nutritious varieties to cater the public and remain competitive. This is why it’s fundamental to engage these companies and make them accountable for the conservation of the genetic resources which underpin their business models. We are seeing important first steps in the coffee and tea industries, for example, and we hope to replicate these joint conservation efforts in all the other crops which are fundamental for food and nutrition security.

Where are the opportunities/examples for how public-private collaboration in crop specific strategies can trigger a reverse in genetic diversity decline?

The Crop Trust is currently exploring Crop-based Fundraising campaigns. The aim of this is to tie conservationists, researchers, producers, consumers and/or other users in the commodity chain of food crops and to seek endowment funding to support development and implementation of global crop-based conservation strategies.

By engaging actors all along the value chains of specific crops, we hope to raise awareness of the importance of conservation and availability of diversity as the fundamental basis of agricultural value chains, and to translate this increased awareness into actionable activities in support of the long-term conservation and use of diversity of the crops in question.

How does diversity have the power to unite the conversation between different ideologies around farming practices? I.e big ag vs organic, regenerative, and small-scale farming systems.

Every form of agriculture, regardless of which ideological direction you tend to ascribe it to, depends on diversity. Diversity is a necessary condition for the sustainability of any agriculture, whether it is large or small, conventional or organic, industrial or artisanal, capital intensive or extensive.

Genetic diversity is the foundation of tomorrow’s agriculture, allowing farmers and professional breeders to develop the new crop varieties that agriculture needs to adapt to changing conditions. The development of new varieties will be necessary for successful adaptation to climate change, and thus to secure the world’s food supply in the future.

Stefan will be presenting ‘Building Biodiversity Back into the Food System’ on September 29 in Track 1: Climate Smart Production at 4pm. The early bird offer ends August 13, book now to secure your place.