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Protecting our food crops

By Shakeel Bhatti - posted Tuesday, 20 March 2012

As consumers, sometimes we resist the belief that climate change affects us, though it is served on our tables and it hits our pockets. Usually we think that climate change means just extreme temperatures and droughts alternated with excessive rainfall in some periods of the year or in some locations. And certainly Australians have seen this over recent years. But we can’t ignore that climate change is a silent killer that is contributing to variations in the conditions in which we produce our food.

Australian average temperatures have increased almost a degree since 1950 and the frequency of hot days and nights has increased as the frequency of cold days and nights has declined. In that same period most of the eastern and south-western Australia has experienced substantial rainfall declines, though there have been tragic times of floods and bushfires too. 

It means that the need to adapt to climate change is more urgent than ever. We all have the responsibility to do today as much as possible to preserve and further develop the tools that will help us. One of these tools is the conservation of the plants that produce our food.  The mission of farmers and land managers is crucial as they will have to adapt their practices to deal with new species like weeds.  The problem is not new of course, but the projections and concerns on climate change coupled with the general discussion over food security fears due to food price volatility indicate that this is becoming more important for wealthy and poor countries alike. Everyone will be looking for new adapted varieties of plants to ensure food supplies in the face of climate change.


These and other similar issues were not new to the group of men and women that initiated in the nineties the negotiations that led to the adoption of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2001.  They had in mind the objective to establish a Seed Treaty as a powerful multilateral mechanism that would strengthen solidarity and fairness among countries in the field of food and agriculture while protecting, exchanging and using the most important seed crops.

Now perhaps more than ever it is time for all countries to make their plants available to all, as Australia has done.

To improve our crops through plant breeding, all countries need to get access to seeds that come from outside their borders.  According to a study published by FAO, Australia is highly dependent on foreign crops for the satisfaction of food needs, with a degree of dependency that ranges from 88 to 100 per cent -similar to New Zealand, and double that of countries like China and India.

The International Treaty is an instrument that helps Australia and other such dependent countries reduce their vulnerability in food production related to pest, diseases outbreaks and climate change. 

At present the International Treaty provides access to a global gene pool of more than 1.5 million accessions belonging to 64 crops stored in the genebanks of 127 members and associated international research centers and collections.  Without the Treaty we would be limited to making country to country arrangements to exchange seed, with time consuming bureaucracies and possible political issues grinding the process to a halt. The Treaty also constitutes governmental approval for seed banks to exchange material without constant reference to governmental authorities.

This easy access to a wide range of plant genetic resources is critical to develop new improved varieties with traits such as pest and disease resistance, the ability to cope with other environmental stresses, increased yields, and added consumer health benefits.


Easy access to the widest possible range of biodiversity also facilitates the development of varieties that could lead to the expansion of arable land to marginal areas and the extension of growing seasons.

Australiacan be proud of its high level of responsibility and leadership in relation to biodiversity conservation. It also played a remarkable role in the life of the Treaty, by working during the negotiations for the Treaty, by joining it in December 2005, by supporting the Treaty’s Benefit Sharing Fund to provide compensation to farmers that have given us all unique genetic material, and supporting the Global Crop Diversity Trust that facilitated the Svalbard Arctic Seed Vault – in fact without the Treaty, the deposits of seed to the vault and their availability to all would not be possible.

No doubt the Treaty is a key forum in setting policy directions and priority activities in genetic resources but it also provides an integrated approach to the conservation and sustainable use of crop biodiversity, and an equitable benefit-sharing mechanism.

The benefits of the Treaty flow to consumers in the form of a greater variety of foods and agricultural products and increased food security, and to the scientific community which is guaranteed access to breeding resources. At the same time the public and private sectors gain greater access to a wide range of genetic diversity.

Through the Treaty, Australia is also supporting the conservation and adaptation efforts of developing countries that have ratified the Treaty.  In 2008 a new multilateral funding was established to invest directly in high impact projects supporting farmers who conserve in their fields the most important food crops.  Since then, 30 projects have benefited from this Fund in countries like India, Nepal, Bhutan, Philippines or Indonesia, just to name a few.

All these efforts to fight against the lost of biodiversity by conserving and promoting the use of our most important food crops is not only a legal obligation and an international commitment that countries have imposed to themselves, but also a moral obligations towards the present and future generations to furnish them with more options to feed the world.

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About the Author

Dr Shakeel Bhatti is the inaugural Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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