African agricultural biodiversity and FAO International Plant Treaty

Africa is immensely rich in biodiversity. Its living organisms comprise around a quarter of global biodiversity. However, biodiversity in Africa continues to decline, with ongoing losses of plant species.

Africa is immensely rich in biodiversity. Its living organisms comprise around a quarter of global biodiversity. However, biodiversity in Africa continues to decline, with ongoing losses of plant species.

In 2014, around 3,148 plants and 6,419 animals in Africa were under threat of extinction.

In a continent where there are an estimated 243 million people threatened by hunger, there is an urgent need to preserve plant species that increase crop yield, especially those that are tolerant to climate change and other environmental impacts.

According to FAO’s “State of Food Security and Nutrition 2017 (SOFI),” the number of undernourished people on the planet has gone up for the first time in a decade from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million today.

At the same time, the world population is on the rise. The African population alone is projected to exceed 42 million people per year by the year 2050.

More productive, diversified agriculture and food systems are required to cope with the growing and changing consumer demands, and all of these are taking place within unrelenting climate change, weather variability and natural resource constraints context.

Innovative and smarter production systems that protect and enhance the natural resource base while increasing productivity, must be developed to address these issues effectively.

Plants form the basis for human sustenance and are the cornerstone of agriculture and food in human history. Yet, studies have revealed alarming levels of erosion of plant genetic resources, whereby more than 75% of global crop diversity have disappeared irrevocably over the 20th century (FAO 2004).

Outbreaks of pests and disease, such as the recent Fall armyworm outbreak that is currently scourging the largest part of Africa, threaten food security in many tropical countries.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) can help address some of the challenges facing agricultural biodiversity in Africa by safeguarding plant species and genetic diversity that are so crucial to feed a growing world population.

Plant Genetic Resources refer to any plant material used for food, feed and agriculture, in particular seeds, but also clippings or individual material from crucial plants that make up of 80% of our foods from plants.

These genetic resources are the biological foundation of agriculture, the raw material for plant evolution and plant breeding for the future.

The International Treaty works to conserve and sustainably use plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.

With the uncertain seasons we now face, countries need to upgrade their game when it comes to improving their food systems; however, this cannot be achieved without the practice of continuous breeding of seeds that keep away pests and diseases and tolerant to climate shocks such as drought.

Similarly, conservation of the diversity of plant genetic material is a key component in increasing and mitigating extinction of crop varieties.

The International Treaty’s Multilateral System currently covers 64 of the world’s most important crops, which together account for 80 percent of all human food consumption from plants.

Increased international collaboration among countries and with research centres is vital, and has played a prominent role in increasing genetic diversity of our crops to build sustainable food systems. Rwanda is one of the 144 signatory countries of ITPGRFA and contributes significantly to global exchange of germplasm.

Rwanda’s agriculture research has released over 90 high yielding, disease and pest resistant crop varieties including beans, potatoes, maize, wheat and rice, some of which have been widely disseminated beyond Rwanda.

The sustainable management of agricultural biodiversity is key, contributes to the diversification of agricultural systems and ensures the sustainability of agriculture and food systems while boosting economic growth and improving rural livelihoods.

The theme of the Seventh Governing Body session of the International Treaty, currently taking place in Kigali, Rwanda, is “The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Role of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.”

As one of the top 10 achievements of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, the International Treaty contributes towards the achievement of a number of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly SDG 2 – by promoting sustainable agriculture and working to end hunger, and SDG 15 – by helping halt the loss of crop biodiversity around the globe.

Its programmes and activities also contribute towards achieving gender equality (SDG 5), combating climate change (SDG 13) and working to end poverty (SDG 1).

The ITGRFA offers an effective system of increasing and protecting agriculture biodiversity, and a platform for fair and equitable sharing of the rich diversity with the rest of the world. The Treaty should enable the continent to address current threats to food security.

Hosted in a sub-Saharan country for first time, ITPGRFA should galvanize the continent to a stronger commitment to the sustainable use of PGRFAs to the benefit of current and future generations.

Dr Gerardine Mukeshimana, Minister of Agriculture & Animal Resource and Attaher Maiga, FAO Representative in Rwanda.

The views expressed in this article are of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.