At least 70% of the world’s poor live in rural areas and depend on natural resources for their food, nutrition and livelihood. Agriculture – in its comprehensive definition including forestry, aquaculture and fisheries – plays a key role in the fight against poverty and food insecurity.
However, the effects of climate change are expected to reduce agricultural productivity, stability and incomes in many parts of the world, some of which already face high levels of food insecurity. The stressors and risks posed by climate change to the different sectors of genetic resources for food and agriculture (i.e. plants, animals, aquatic resources, forests, micro-organisms and invertebrates) are manifold. In general, climate change is expected to change species distribution, population sizes, community composition, timing of biological events, as well as the behaviour of many species.
Although climate change poses new challenges to the management of genetic resources for food and agriculture, at the same time it underlines their importance in coping with climate change. It is widely recognised that forest and aquatic genetic resources have immense current importance and even greater future potential for mitigation of climate change. However, the role of genetic resources for food and agriculture in adaptation has received little attention. It is due to their genetic variability that plants, animals, micro-organisms and invertebrates are able to adapt and survive when their environments change. Maintaining and using a wide range of genetic diversity therefore means maintaining options for adaptation. Consequently, measures to promote sustainable use and prevent genetic erosion (such as ex-situ and in-situ/on-farm conservation) are of outstanding importance.
As countries seek to obtain well-adapted crops, livestock, trees and aquatic organisms, climate change will increase the exchange of genetic resources and interdependence of countries, especially when developing policies and financial instruments. Genetic resources are the raw materials that provide valuable characteristics for adaptation, for instance, tolerance of high temperatures and droughts, resistance to diseases and parasites, utilisation of scarce and poor-quality feed and tolerance of lower water quality.
The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provides an intergovernmental forum to discuss and develop knowledge and policies relevant to biodiversity for food and agriculture. It recognises the significant role that genetic resources for food and agriculture play in mitigation of and particularly adaptation to the consequences of climate change in support of the efforts to achieve food security, now, and in the future. It meets in April 2013 and will further address this matter.
Though the international community has a long history of discussing issues of genetic resources for food and agriculture, as well as climate change, there is a need to better address the linkages between the two by, for example, developing policies, strategies and tools, as well as partnerships that promote and use the potential of genetic resources for food and agriculture for coping with climate change. Merging knowledge and building capacities by bringing together stakeholders and policy makers from both areas will enhance the conservation, sustainable use and potential contribution of genetic resources for food and agriculture to respond to ever-changing production conditions. Therefore, mainstreaming and integrating genetic resources for food and agriculture into planning of climate change adaptation and mitigation policies and measures at national and international levels, is a key step towards ensuring food security.