Emerging from a devastating Second World War, the international community founded the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 1945 with a mandate to achieve a world without poverty and hunger. The shared vision of the 44 founding governments that gathered in 1943 for the United Nations Conference on Food and Agriculture was to leverage agriculture, the proven engine of poverty reduction, to improve living standards, especially for the rural poor, in an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable way. Currently, FAO is an intergovernmental organization with 194 Member Nations, two associate members and one member organization, the European Union. The Organization’s work is underpinned by its five strategic objectives; help eliminate hunger; make agriculture, forestry and fisheries more productive and sustainable; reduce rural poverty; enable inclusive and efficient agricultural systems; and increase the resilience of livelihoods to threats and crises. The implementation of FAO’s mandate contributes therefore to the actualization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, also known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). From ending poverty and hunger to responding to climate change and sustaining our natural resources, food and agriculture are crucially important to global efforts to attain the SDGs.
Scope of the Challenges and Opportunities
In recent decades, significant progress has been made with increasing food production and reducing extreme hunger. However, 70 years after the establishment of FAO, the organization’s mission of a world free of hunger remains elusive. This is probably a testament to the complexity of the seeming intractable problem of food insecurity and malnutrition. In fact, it is estimated that about 60 per cent more food will be required over the next four decades. Yet, the confluence of an ever-increasing human population, climate change, dwindling or inelastic water resources and arable lands, the escalating competing needs for energy and fibre and the unsustainability of the excessive use of external inputs further exacerbate the scourge of food insecurity and malnutrition. However, there is consensus the challenges are not insurmountable, ample opportunities exist for a knowledge – rather than input-intensive agricultural production system. In fact, the significant advances in science and technology and the demonstrated benefits lurking within the largely untapped potentials of agrobiodiversity, in particular plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA), provide valid grounds for optimism.
Sustainable Intensification of Crop Production Systems
In striving for sustainable solutions, FAO, along with its partners, is convinced that the expected increases in food production must be attained using fewer external inputs, i.e. ‘producing more with less’. This describes an environmentally friendly production paradigm whereby the optimal use of external inputs is complemented by the harnessing of ecosystem services – that, for instance, enhance soil nutrients; help control pests, diseases and weeds and conserve soil moisture. Emphasis is placed therefore on improved productivity rather than merely enhanced production.
With the deployments of additional external inputs impractical, unaffordable or unsustainable, FAO’s work seeks to achieve the two imperatives of producing significantly more food and safeguarding the environment. Known as sustainable crop production intensification (SCPI), the paradigm’s underlying principle is improved productivities. FAO’s policy guidance on SCPI, Save and Grow, enunciates means towards an intensive crop production, one that is both highly productive and environmentally sustainable. Two companion volumes, one for cassava – a food security root crop for the tropics, and the other for three globally important cereals – maize, rice and wheat, demonstrate the efficacies of the espoused methods. A recurring imperative is that farmers must have access to the quality seeds and planting materials of a diverse suite of well-adapted crops and their varieties. This ensures resilience of the production system while also enhancing productivity and forms the core of FAO’s work on PGRFA and seeds.
What FAO does
Getting the affordable quality seeds and planting materials of the most suitable crop varieties to farmers in a timely manner is the tail end of a seamless continuum of interventions that involve genebank curators, plant breeders and other scientists and seeds specialists, producers and/or marketers (see figure). There would be no quality seeds without a responsive plant breeding programme developing the crop varieties that meet the requirements of farmers and end-users, are well-adapted to target agro-ecologies and fit into production systems. And, neither would there be such a result-oriented crop improvement programme if there were no readily accessible sources of heritable variations – the kinds only well-managed germplasm collections offer.
FAO’s work on PGRFA and seeds is implemented through two main mechanisms: facilitating intergovernmental action and agreements on concerted and coordinated activities, on the one hand, and the provision of technical assistance to countries and regions on the other. These two modes of intervention complement each other and are mutually supportive. Also, FAO’s successes in both modes of work depend on close collaboration with partners, including, at the intergovernmental level, with other organizations and through international instruments, such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Treaty). At the technical level, FAO cooperates with international research and development organizations, such as the centers of the CGIAR. Similar regional and national entities as well as civil society and farmer organizations are also major partners in FAO’s work.
A Framework for Action
The Second Global Plan of Action for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Second GPA), developed under the auspices of FAO’s Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Commission), is an internationally agreed framework for the conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA. Endorsed by the FAO Council in 2011, it provides a list of 18 priority activities that countries have committed to implement as means to conserving and using PGRFA sustainably. The Second GPA therefore serves as the template for FAO’s engagement with member countries on the conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA.
FAO supports countries in the implementation of the Second GPA and has published the Guidelines for Developing a National Strategy for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture to aid countries in this regard. The World Information and Early Warning Systems on PGRFA (WIEWS) serves as platform for reporting on progress made by countries towards the implementation of the Second GPA. FAO also publishes periodically the global status of the conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA with the Second Report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. An overview of FAO’s work addressing the strengthening of countries’ capacities for the conservation of PGRFA, crop improvement and seed delivery systems is presented below.
Conservation of PGRFA
FAO, through activities such as capacity building and backstopping to national programs, supports countries with the safeguarding of the full range of diversity within particular species or taxa; the characterization of their genetic variation; the evaluation of the variants for agronomic performances and the provision of the associated data. PGRFA are conserved through three main ways:
- In-situ, i.e. in their natural habitats in the wild. To aid countries in this endeavor, FAO has recently developed the Voluntary Guidelines on National Level Conservation of Crop Wild Relatives and Wild Food Plants.
- On-farm, i.e. the maintenance of a wide diversity of PGRFA, including farmer varieties/landraces, as part of production systems; and
- Ex-situ, i.e. in genebanks. FAO’s Genebank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provide a compendium of best practices for safeguarding PGRFA as germplasm collections. They also include standards for the collecting, characterization, evaluation of genebank accessions.
One means for improving productivities is the harnessing of genetic gains, i.e. the unlocking of the potentials encoded into the genetic blueprints of PGRFA. As evident from the work that FAO and partners carry out, this requires both the conservation and the sustainable use of PGRFA. The organization’s support to countries results in the development of improved and well-adapted crop varieties that meet end-user needs and are suited to the prevailing agro-ecologies and production systems. Farmer participation and the use of the most efficiency-enhancing scientific and technological tools and procedures are emphasized. FAO convenes the Global Partnership Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building (GIPB) as a multi-stakeholder platform aimed at improving institutional capacity for effective crop variety development and their distribution through seed systems. The e-learning course on pre-breeding is a capacity building tool developed through the GIPB which is aimed at widening the genetic base of the repertoire of parents used in plant breeding programmes. The underlying principle is that the broader the genetic diversity of crops and their varieties, the more resilient the crop production system.
Delivery of Quality Seeds and Planting Materials
FAO strives to ensure that a responsive mechanism is in place to enable farmers have access to quality seeds and planting materials of a diverse suite of crop varieties that they need to grow. The mechanisms include different forms and scales of seed enterprises and community-based production and distribution systems and the institutional means for quality assurance. Recognizing the very important, and usually complementary, roles of both the public and private sectors, FAO’s interventions target both the informal and formal seed delivery systems. FAO therefore works with government agencies, research and breeding institutions, seed enterprises and community based organizations in the development and operation of a sustainable seed sector value chain.
FAO, through its work on seed delivery, supports an average of more than 30 countries annually with strengthening of institutional and human capacities. The usual interventions include the development, implementation, harmonization and revisions of national and regional seed policies, laws and regulations. Typically, the instruments govern variety registration and release, plant variety protection, seed production, certification, packaging and labelling, marketing and biosafety. A useful tool that FAO has developed recently in this regard is the Voluntary Guide for National Seed Policy Formulation.
Regional blocs have also been assisted with the harmonization of national seed regulatory frameworks in order to facilitate the delivery of quality seeds within and between countries. With FAO’s support, African regional blocs – the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa (UEMOA) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and that of Central Asia – the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), have harmonized national seed regulatory frameworks. These regionally harmonized seed regulations are enhancing the ease for, and volume of, cross-border movement of seeds thereby providing a broader market for seed enterprises and more choices for farmers.
FAO also assists its member countries to produce quality seeds by strengthening the capacities of national seed laboratories, training seed analysts and inspectors, organizing the variety release systems, and preparing national or regional variety catalogues.
FAO also supports community-based seed production and distribution channels to ensure that small-scale farmers have access to quality seeds of the most suitable varieties in their communities, and to supplement what the formal seed sector can offer. Most of the seeds accessed through the informal system fall within crop groups that are not of commercial interest to the private sector, the bulk of which constitutes important food security crops, such as cassava, cowpeas, open pollinated maize, sweet potato and yams. The protocols for Quality Declared Seeds and Quality Declared Planting Materials, developed under FAO’s auspices, ensure that costs associated with standard certification processes do not prevent the availability or affordability of quality seeds, especially for crops without significant private sector involvement in the value chain.
Natural disasters and civil strife disrupt crop production. FAO contributes to the restart of farming by affected and displaced households through the rehabilitation of national seed systems. The typical assistances, to an average of 20 countries annually, include the supply of quality seeds of appropriate varieties, the development and implementation of policies and the strengthening of relevant institutional and human capacities which can support farmers’ continued access to the seeds and planting materials they need (seed security). This kind of assistance reduces or eliminates dependence on food aids. In addition to FAO’s own field level activities, the organization has developed a number of tools to aid other partners apply best practices in providing seeds to farmers as part of emergency relief interventions and in carrying out seed security assessments.
FAO is committed to winning the war against hunger and malnutrition without further damage to the environment. In fact, the organization’s common vision on sustainability envisages the concomitant attainments of both food security and nutrition and a safeguarded environment. It is for this reason that the organization’s work on sustainable intensification of crop production systems relies heavily on the unlocking of the potentials of PGRFA as complement to harnessed ecosystem services and the optimal use of external inputs. In this regard, FAO demonstrates that it is possible to feed an ever-increasing population, even in spite of climate change and other drivers, while also conserving agrobiodiversity. This requires the bridging of the agriculture – environment divide, an endeavor that requires both functional tools and political commitments. Quality seeds and planting materials of well-adapted crop varieties are critically important tools for re-engineering our crop production system towards enhanced productivities, i.e. to produce more with less. The organization also leverages its normative processes especially the Commission and the Treaty to foster agreements between governments and secure commitments relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of PGRFA.
Figure: A schematic representation of the continuum approach to the management of PGRFA illustrating the three seamless dovetailing and mutually enriching modules: Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA); Crop Improvement and Seed Delivery. PGRFA conservation provides the raw materials used in breeding improved crop varieties which on the other hand requires a functional seed system in order to contribute to improved productivities on farmers’ fields.
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Content provided by the staff members of the Seeds and Plant Genetic Resources Team of the Plant Production and Protection Division at FAO: Ndeye Ndack Diop, Stefano Diulgheroff, Bonnie Furman, Diana GutierrezMendez, Wilson Hugo, Chikelu Mba, Shawn McGuire, Arshiya Noorani, Lucio Olivero, and Petra Staberg.