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Environment

Existing biodiversity could prevent global food scarcity, scientists say

July 16, 2013

Seeds stored in international gene banks could be the key to growing enough food to feed an expanding world population, according to scientists from the University of Minnesota and a consortium of genomics experts.

Their recommendations, published this month in the journal Nature, call for using the thousands of seeds and genetic materials preserved at international gene banks to isolate the environmental resilience and disease and pest resistance of wild relatives of crop plants and to breed those characteristics into improved varieties.

Human diets depend on fewer than a dozen of the 300,000 species of flowering plants, the authors note. But farmers and seed collectors have saved seeds from the wild relatives of domestic crops, localized variations of crops and domestic crops that are no longer widely grown, and much of that material now resides in seed banks. Those seeds may have just the resilience and adaptive capacity that future food crops need, says Jim Bradeen, a plant pathology professor at the University of Minnesota and one of the paper’s co-authors.

The diverse material from seed banks is used by researchers to create new varieties of familiar crops, but the authors say that process can be slow and cumbersome. But improved genomics and breeding technologies, as well as increased incentives for gene banks to commercialize their materials in a manner that fosters conservation and sustainable use of crop genetic resources, mean the time may be right for a more concerted effort to put the seed banks’ collections to work.

The authors also call for international collaborations to more consistently share data and for connections between public- and private-sector scientists and the communities where crops are actually grown. Such connections will help develop plants that adapt to local environmental and growing conditions.

The cost for such a concerted effort, they note, would be about $200 million a year, far less than the cost of high-profile scientific efforts such as sequencing the human genome.  But without it, Bradeen and his co-authors say, food production faces a precarious future.

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