Addressing an agricultural crisis in the context of climate change

By Priya Prasad

Labelling itself as “A Foundation for Food Security,” former politician and executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Marie Haga emphasised the need for a “specific mandate for food security.” “There is a need to conserve diversity of major food crops and making it available to farmers and breeders,” she adds. She says this in the context of climate change, which scientists say will benefit crops in certain areas but would have adverse effects worldwide, bringing down food production by 2%.

“The challenge facing agriculture is that there are too many people. This would need a 15% increase in food production in 10 years, and this will occur in the midst of climate change,” Haga says. In a document prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate change will have a negative impact on agriculture. A one degree rise in temperatures globally will lead to a 10% reduction in rice yields. “Agriculture has to adapt, and it has to adapt quickly,” says an emphatic Haga.

Haga praised India’s Food Security Act, saying that more countries need to make food security and its conservation high on their political agendas. “Now they are working in the UN for the 2015 development goals. I don’t doubt that food security will be on the agenda but we’ve got to make sure that it is sufficiently strong,” she says.

According to Haga, crop diversity is the way forward. Having varieties of food crops available will help address the agricultural shortage that will occur. But the challenge now lies in making this diverse food crop available to farmers and this would require conserving crops. Plant genebanks are one such method of storing a variety of seeds. This is where the role of organsiations such as the Global Crop Diversity Fund come in, which was established at the United Nations Johannesburg Summit in 2002. “Genebanks are not meant to be museums, but seeds need to be stored and made available to farmers,” she adds.

The Trust works under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. It was established as a system of sharing the benefits of storing seed varieties with the global community. A back-up facility was  created on an island near the Arctic pole, Svalbard which houses 781,148 samples of seeds from all over the world. The facility includes major international collections from organisations such as Africa Rice, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Biodiversity International to name a few as well as national collections from individual member states.

The collection at Svalbard is supported via an endowment fund from the various governments that are part of the International Treaty. The proceeds of this fund account for 15% of the overall costs of managing the collection.

Questions were raised regarding patentcy issues of sharing the national collections of seeds at Svalbard with other countries. Haga and her colleague, Luigi Guarino, a senior scientist at the Trust said that this would only apply to countries that fall under the International Treaty.

The talk on food security, “Feeding a Growing World Despite Climate Change,” was held at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation. In his opening address, Mr Swaminathan said that the work of such organisations such as the Global Crop Trust Fund is to keep “genetic resources in trust for posterity” in order to ensure the wellbeing of future generations.