Disappearing traditional crops pose threat to food security, experts warn

Agriculture experts have warned that agriculture mechanisation, expansion of large-scale agriculture and new technologies have led to disappearance of local crop varieties as farmers look for more commercial varieties that grow faster and produce more yields.
Kent Nnadozie, Acting Secretary of International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, speaking to journalists during the regional workshop on plant genetic r....
Kent Nnadozie, Acting Secretary of International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, speaking to journalists during the regional workshop on plant genetic r....

Agriculture experts have warned that agriculture mechanisation, expansion of large-scale agriculture and new technologies have led to disappearance of local crop varieties as farmers look for more commercial varieties that grow faster and produce more yields.

The experts were earlier this week, speaking during an African Union Regional Workshop on the Implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).

The two-day conference brought together officials from African Union countries and beyond, ahead of the 7th session of the Treaty’s governing body, which will be held in Rwanda from October 30 to November 3, 2017.

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Participants during the regional workshop on plant genetic resources in Kigali, on Tuesday, September 19, 2017. / Courtesy

Various people including Heads of State of some 144 signatory member states are expected at that conference which will be held for the first time in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the plant genetic diversity used in agriculture – the crops that feed us and their wild relatives – is being lost at an alarming rate, noting that just nine crops (wheat, rice, maize, barley, sorghum/millet, potato, sweet potato/yam, sugar cane and soybean) account for over 75 percent of the plant kingdom’s contribution to human dietary energy.

FAO estimates that since the beginning of this century about 75 percent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost.

Kent Nnadozie, ITPGRFA acting Secretary, said genetic resources are the foundation of agriculture, as the basis of the development of plant and seeds varieties for different conditions.

“And within those varieties and crops that have been lost, have characteristics and traits that actually adapt to climate change and new conditions such as diseases,” he said.

He pointed out that the treaty ensures the global system that breeders can have access to different types of varieties and materials which they can use to breed new crops or varieties.

“So, one of the things that the treaty does is to facilitate the conservation of those local varieties and landraces to ensure that there are not lost because it is within those varieties that we can get genes and traits that adapt to new changes and conditions such as diseases and climate change effects, and we can use to breed new materials, and more nutritious and higher yield varieties,” he said.

“We recognise that no country is self-sufficient in terms for its food production, in terms of crops that it plants. In fact, every country is dependent on crops from other countries.

Preserving and sharing plant genetic resources

Typically, he said, about 60 to 80 percent of maize, which is the most produced crop in Africa originated from Mexico; and wheat originated from the Middle East, even cassava did not originate from Africa.

Information from FAO shows that soybeans and rice came from China. Sorghum, yams and coffee came from Africa. Potatoes and tomatoes originated in the Andes of South America.

Otto Muhinda, Assistant FAO Representative in Rwanda said that as technology moves fast, it is overusing landrace (traditional) crops as it is producing new crops based on the traditional ones.

The main challenge, he said, is how to develop new crops, but also maintain the existence of the traditional crops.

“The traditional crops had some traits to be resistant to diseases because many of the diseases [in crops these days] come with new crops,” he said noting that even if one can get higher yield thanks to new crops, it stems from traditional ones.

The director of research at Rwanda Agriculture Board (RAB), Patrick Karangwa, said that the sharing of genetic resources and application of research to develop crops that adapt to climatic conditions and diseases is a good way to achieving food security and conserving the environment.

He noted “though we need to achieve food and Agriculture, you realise that diversity has importance to environment.”

FAO warns that genetic uniformity invites disaster because it makes a crop vulnerable to attack, as a pest or disease that strikes one plant quickly spreads throughout the crop.

It states that the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s is a dramatic example of the dangers of genetic uniformity, when a blight struck Ireland destroying Irish potato crops and leaving over one million dead in the famine. In addition, more became emigrants.  

It gave another example where genetic uniformity left the United States maize crop vulnerable to a blight viral disease that in 1970, destroyed almost $1 000 million worth of maize and reduced yields by as much as 50 percent.

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