The Crop Trust on looking after global food security

13 March 2017  •  Author(s): Marie Haga | The Crop Trust

New Food speaks exclusively to Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust to discuss the sheer scale of the global food security challenge we face…

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1.  For those who don’t know, who is the Crop Trust and what do you do?

The Crop Trust’s mandate is to safeguard the many millions of varieties of crops that exist around the world. Many people are amazed to learn, for example, that 4,500 varieties of potato and nearly 200,000 varieties of rice exist.

The diversity within crops is the basis for crop improvement. In an increasingly challenging climate and at a time when the world requires more and more nutritious food, crop diversity is more important than ever. Many of the plants we eat every day are severely struggling with a number of different environmental challenges, such as higher temperatures and new diseases. Varieties better able to adapt are desperately needed. Crops can be improved by natural breeding, but it takes time and it requires that we have the full range of diversity available to users. If we lose diversity, we lose options.

This is why our work is important, and this is why governments decided in 2004 that an international organisation specifically for this purpose was required.

More concretely our job is to help build and fund a cost effective, rational and global system for conservation and availability of crop diversity worldwide. This system is based on 3 pillars: international crop collections, national and regional collections of global importance and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the final back-up of the world’s crop collections.

All of our work is under the provisions of the International Plant Treaty.

2. Having recently covered the story featuring the major deposit to world’s largest seed collection in the arctic overseen by the Crop Trust, can you tell us why this was so important for global food security?

Agriculture is facing dramatic challenges due to climate change and a growing world population. In many ways, the Green Revolution is running out. We can no longer base increased food production on expansion of agricultural land, nor the use of more water, fertilisers, pesticides or other inputs.

It is virtually impossible to see how we can feed a growing world population under climate change without going back to the building blocks of agriculture – the diversity of crops.

Agriculture is facing dramatic challenges due to climate change and a growing world population…

Each plant variety has different characteristics that can help crops adapt to new challenges. Each one is worth conserving. Having only one potato or apple variety to choose from is not only boring, it is dangerous.

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By preserving duplicate samples of these food crops that are held in crop collections worldwide in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, we provide a “fail safe” insurance against loss of crop diversity caused by climate change, natural disaster or war.

The Vault has already proven its worth. Just last month, the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which was previously located in Syria, returned seeds to the Vault that it withdrew in 2015.

When fighting struck Aleppo, ICARDA requested its duplicate seeds stored in Svalbard, so it could continue its genebank activities in the more accessible and secure locations of Morocco and Lebanon. Having successfully multiplied and regenerated its collection, a portion of those seeds taken out in 2015 have now returned safely to the Vault.

3. New Food magazine is currently running an online feature ‘Feeding Asia’. In line with this, how worried should we be about current and future levels of global food security?

We all know the figures: by 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase to nearly ten billion. Conservative estimates suggest an increase in global food demand over the same period of at least 50%. Knowing the facts, unfortunately doesn’t necessarily lead to action among decision makers. We should be extremely worried.

The International Panel for Climate Change has documented that for every degree Celsius of increase in temperature, we could lose 2 percent in agricultural yields. Any of us can understand that more people and less food production will lead to disaster. We have to wake up.

Feeding all of us around the world is not optional, however hard it may be. Crop diversity doesn’t suffice to feed us all, but it is a prerequisite.

4. Just how important is it that NGOs work with governments as well as the private sector in order to ensure the world’s food is protected for future generations?

It is absolutely essential. NGOs play a crucial role in raising awareness, and a lot of awareness raising needs to be done in this field.

Realising food security has traditionally been seen as a government responsibility, yet companies benefit from global common goods like everyone else. While governments up to now have contributed almost 95 percent of the Crop Trust’s resources and will continue to be our main partners into the future, we are expanding our horizons when it comes to new, innovative partnerships.

Philanthropy is important, yet it will not take us sufficiently far. We need to build business cases in order to achieve global goals. We have started a cooperation with World Coffee Research that hopefully will lead to a conservation effort by companies in the coffee sector. When your business is based on coffee, and coffee is at risk due to climate change, it makes perfect sense to invest in conserving its diversity.

If your business is dependent on citrus, it is a good idea to contribute to farmers being able to produce healthy and well yielding oranges and lemons.

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In short, we are eager to pursue new and innovative ways of financing global common goods, in cooperation with the private sector, public sector, philanthropy, science and civil society. Having the buy-in from NGOs will help us move faster, and we are eager to work with them.

5. What precisely is being done and what must be done to ensure future food security?

We know that securing the world’s food supply is going to require support and work beyond crop diversity conservation – such as further advances in crop science, building efficient markets, and reducing the waste of food. But none of this can be effective if the foundation of our food supply is lost. And that’s why we urge people to help us secure the foundation of this entire system now, so that we, as a global community, can use this material to create a sustainable and healthy food system in the future.

While this is a big task to undertake, the world community is already recognising the importance of protecting agricultural biodiversity. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically SDG Target 2.5, calls to secure crop diversity globally by the year 2020, as a prerequisite for food security and nutrition. This is one of the few near-term targets of the SDGs, making it truly urgent to achieve this goal but also very plausible if we all work together.

There will always be challenges to overcome and new diseases or bad drought periods to face, but if we take the necessary steps now to conserve the diversity that nature has given us, what we can do with these different plants is limitless.

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