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How ICBA preserves agrobiodiversity for food security in marginal environments

Friday, May 22, 2020

22 May is designated by the United Nations as the International Day of Biological Diversity. This day serves to remind us of the importance of biodiversity for life on earth.

Agrobiodiversity, a sub-set of biodiversity, is, for example, crucial for food and agriculture. It is more vital than ever before as the world is going through climate crisis and environmental degradation.

And this year’s theme ‘’Our solutions are in nature” could not be more pertinent. Indeed, nature has solutions to many of the world’s problems, including hunger and undernutrition.

Unfortunately, today the global food system is unhealthily dependent on a few major crops like rice, wheat and maize, which are neither resilient nor nutritious enough. As a result, rural diets in many parts of the world are not adequately rich. A mere 15 crops provide 90 percent of the world’s food energy intake, of which two-thirds come from only wheat, maize and rice. With climate change already affecting crop production, this is a serious risk factor for millions of people.

This needs to change as it is neither good for human health nor is sustainable for the planet. And nature has a lot to offer. There are around 30,000 known edible plant species globally. More than 6,000 crops have been cultivated for food throughout human history, but fewer than 200 species have any significant production levels worldwide, with only nine accounting for over 66 percent of all crop production by weight.

To resolve hunger and undernutrition, especially in marginal environments, it is necessary to diversify into these underutilized, neglected and forgotten crops that are naturally better at withstanding biotic and abiotic stress factors and are in many cases more nutritious. Quinoa, a super crop from the Andes, is a great example. In less than a decade it has entered the menus around the world. It is more resilient and nutritious than wheat, barley or corn.

Agrobiodiversity and crop diversification hold the key to sustainable food production and healthy diets under a changing climate. For this reason, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) has been at the forefront of promoting agrobiodiversity and crop diversification for the past two decades. The center has introduced climate-smart and resource-efficient crops like quinoa, pearl millet, sorghum and Salicornia, among others, in countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, to help smallholder farmers and rural communities.

Under its program on plant genetic resources, ICBA has collected and preserved germplasm of plant species with proven or potential salinity, heat and drought tolerance from around the world since the establishment of its unique genebank in 2000.

Today the genebank is home to one of the world’s largest collections of germplasm of drought-, heat- and salt-tolerant plant species. It stores some 14,524 accessions of around 270 plant species from more than 150 countries and territories. This also includes around 260 seed samples of 70 wild and cultivated plant species from the UAE.

ICBA also provides seed samples to different institutions around the world for research, breeding and introduction. Since 2000 the center has distributed 8,572 seed samples to partner organizations in 57 countries.

ICBA’s genebank is also part of the Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-sharing within the framework of Article 15  of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture - the world’s largest global gene pool of plant genetic material, available to farmers, plant breeders and scientists for the sustainable production of food from plants. The Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-sharing currently comprises over 2.6 million samples of crop germplasm.

As part of the conservation of plant genetic resources in the UAE, ICBA conducts regular expeditions to different locations to collect some of the important indigenous species and store them in its genebank for the future. As a result of these efforts, scientists have been able to identify and study four local cereal varieties (one landrace of barley and three landraces of wheat) in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, preserve Halfa grass from possible extinction, and uncover and document eight plant species previously unknown to exist in the country.

All this work is critical for efforts to ensure food security and nutrition in marginal environments today and tomorrow. It is important to protect and preserve biodiversity in general and agrobiodiversity in particular so that humanity has solutions that nature can offer to the current and future challenges.