Guest Article #24

World Food Day: Genetic Resources – Part of the solution

The food crises and economic downturn of recent years have highlighted the fact that food safety is a global challenge that requires proactive international commitment from all nations. Agriculture and food production are vital to the development of impoverished nations and must be restored to a central role in development-aid policy. In order to guarantee food supplies for the Earth's growing population, a solid commitment to the preservation and sustainable use of genetic resources must be at the core of agricultural development. This is especially important in an era of increasing man-made climate change. 

The challenges that we face demand both regional and international co-operation. Over the last three decades, the Nordic countries, via the Nordic Council of Ministers, have been building up regional co-operation on the preservation and sustainable use of genetic resources. One tangible outcome of this partnership was the establishment of the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, NordGen, which has enabled partnerships to be forged with gene banks in Africa and Asia. NordGen is now also responsible for running the Global Seed Vault on Svalbard.

Growing enough food for the Earth's population has long been a priority for international agriculture, fisheries and development policy. Between 1970 and 2009, global food production rose so rapidly that it was possible to feed a global population that grew by three billion people. This was no mean feat, and justifies a degree of cautious optimism. However, there is also cause for concern. As a consequence of the global food crises of recent years, as well as the economic crisis, the trend has been reversed – the number of people who face food shortages has risen by 150 million since 2007. One billion people will face food shortages this year.

Despite the generally positive trend since 1970, progress has not been so firmly embedded that the possibility of a severe reversal can be discounted completely. There is therefore good reason to focus on the objective of feeding the Earth's population. No nation can allow itself to remain passive in the face of this challenge – and affluent countries have a particular responsibility.

This is underlined by the fact that global agriculture needs to increase production by 70% in order to guarantee enough food for a population that is expected to grow by 2.3 billion by 2050.

Greater political focus

For the past few years, agriculture and food production have, regrettably, received less attention within aid policy. A corresponding trend has been noted in international financial institutions' loan practices, and direct private investment in developing countries' agricultural sectors has reached a low point.

Events of recent years, including the food and financial crises, have re-focused attention on the impact of poverty, hunger, malnourishment, agriculture and food production on development in poor countries. This greater clarity of vision is especially timely, given that the proportion of international aid spent on agriculture fell from 18% to a mere 3% over the last two decades.

Growing agreement exists on a series of important conditions that need to be taken into account if we are to respond effectively to these challenges. At international level, there is a recognition of the need for better global management in order to solve problems that are common to all countries – e.g. food supplies, food safety, loss of genetic diversity in foodstuffs and agriculture, climate change, deforestation, deteriorating soil and water resources, and combating disease in people and animals.

Genetic diversity part of the solution

Modern agriculture uses relatively few but intensively bred plant and livestock species with good yields. However, this concentration on a few crops and species in the most productive regions has led to a deterioration in the preconditions for ensuring sufficient food for the Earth's population. Many of the poorest countries and production areas lack the resources to develop crops suited to their region, their climate and the challenges they face. Man-made climate change means that we must now start the long-term work of developing new types of plants. We must ensure that we do not lose the diversity upon which the world's small farmers rely. It is vital that these important aspects are taken into account in the current climate negotiations.

Unless massive efforts are made in plant breeding, it will be difficult to solve the food-supply problem in the longer term – indeed, it is possible that supplies will become more vulnerable. With regard to livestock, it is important to support sustainable management of breeds without impoverishing the genetic resource base.

The Nordic countries realise that we must focus international efforts on the preservation and sustainable use of genetic resources in order to ensure sufficient food stocks for the Earth's growing population. In relation to sustainable use, it is necessary to improve plant breeding to make sure that efforts in this area are directed towards the poorest countries and production areas, so that we can guarantee hardier crops capable of coping with droughts, saline soil, wildly fluctuating climate conditions, etc.

To meet these challenges, nations and regions must work more closely together. Through NordGen, the Nordic Region is well placed to do so, and is ready to play an ongoing and active role in improving conditions for the starving people of the world.