While human food at global level encompasses thousands of species, most of global agriculture depends on relatively few crops – only about 150 are nowadays cultivated on any significant scale worldwide. Each comes in a vast range of different forms and characteristics such as their response to cold, heat or drought, or their ability to tolerate specific pests and diseases. In fact it is possible to find variation in almost every conceivable trait, including cooking and nutritional qualities, and taste. These heritable traits are passed on from generation to generation and determine a crop’s characteristics and future potential. Biodiversity is the biological base of all agriculture. Its use goes back to the origins of farming, and farmers and scientists must continually draw on this irreplaceable resource.
Loss of diversity and conservation efforts
At the beginning of the 1980ies, FAO warned that three quarters of a vast number of varieties were lost. A non-binding International Undertaking on Plant Genetic resources was adopted by FAO member states in 1983. The Undertaking was based on ‘the universally accepted principle that plant genetic resources are a heritage of mankind and consequently should be available without restriction’ (Article 1). This formulation, and other articles with it, were to form the basis for new controversies with regard to intellectual property and plant breeders’ rights, and also provided the background for the later introduction of ‘farmers’ rights’ as a political concept. In 1985, at the first session of the new FAO Committee on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, several OECD countries stated that their national legislation, including plant breeders’ rights, determined the degree to which they could adhere to the Undertaking.
FAO member states agreed in 1996 a global action plan to maintain agricultural biodiversity in fields and gardens (in situ) as well as in gene banks (ex situ). On farm conservation is irreplaceable since this is the only way of to ensure that seeds continuously adapt to changing environment. Equally important, knowledge and culture associated with the crops are maintained. Gene bank conservation is a good back up for on farm conservation, but can never replace it since it takes many years to "wake them from coma", adapt and multiply them in order to be back in use. But gene banks can be endangered, e.g. in Germany, within the past two decades, half of the public fruit collections were lost, often due to lack of funding. If more locations and more people are involved, such as in on farm conservation, the risk is spread and smaller. Also, adaptation to many locations is a very valuable asset. Last but not least, knowledge and capabilities to maintain genetic diversty in situ is cultured and developed. Farmers also need access to the germplasm in gene banks, which is not always the case. Community seed banks could provide an efficient link between on farm conservation efforts and gene banks, thus strengthening both efforts.
In 2001, the FAO Seed Treaty was agreed where important rules on conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are laid down.