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The Borlaug Blog

Importance of Protecting the World's Agricultural Genetic Diversity

 
By Chase Krug
2018 Borlaug-Ruan International Intern and 2019 John Chrystal Award Recipient

Dr. Norman Borlaug is perhaps the greatest plant breeder of the 20th century. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in the Green Revolution that resulted in saving over one billion lives. He accomplished this amazing feat by breeding high-yielding semi-dwarf wheat varieties that directed more energy to grain production than vegetative growth compared to the taller conventional wheat varieties grown at that time. 

Dr. Borlaug used elite and diverse germplasm to breed his semi-dwarf wheat varieties. He notably transferred germplasm between the United States and Japan when he utilized the Japanese dwarf wheat variety Norin 10 to breed the varieties of semi-dwarf wheat responsible for the Green Revolution. 

It is important to reflect and realize that if the original, native Japanese wheat varieties had gone extinct before anyone realized their potential for groundbreaking gains in wheat improvement, the admirable accomplishments of Dr. Borlaug and his associates most likely wouldn’t have occurred. It is for this reason that we must preserve, protect and allow for the free exchange of the world’s remaining genetic resources before it’s too late. We can never know what agricultural challenges lie ahead and the genes or traits needed to meet those challenges.

Through my involvement in the World Food Prize Foundation, I have learned the immense importance of the preservation and protection of the world’s agricultural crop germplasm. I became involved with the World Food Prize as a freshman in high school when I wrote an essay on plant science solutions to food insecurity issues in Peru and then participated in the Iowa Youth Institute (IYI) in the spring of 2015. I enjoyed presenting my work to peers who shared similar interests and passions. A few months after IYI, I received an acceptance letter to participate in the Global Youth Institute (GYI) in the fall of 2015. Over the following summer, I extensively refined and improved my research paper. At GYI, I had the opportunity to experience the Borlaug Dialogue, watch the Laureate Award Ceremony and meet world experts fighting  food insecurity. This event drove my desire to remain involved with the World Food Prize and its renowned youth programs. I attended the IYI every year until I graduated high school in the spring of 2018. Each year, the event propelled me to further explore the complexities of agriculture and food insecurity.

In 2018, I applied for the Borlaug-Ruan Internship program, where students participate in an 8-week summer experience at prestigious international agricultural research centers. I was stationed at the World Vegetable Center – South Asia Office in Hyderabad, India. My internship in India was a phenomenal learning experience. I worked in the entomology lab on a project finding the mechanisms of resistance in mungbean seeds that prevent or deter egg laying and feeding from Bruchid beetles and larvae. Bruchid beetles are a major storage pest that infest mungbeans and can cause total crop harvest loss. During my time in India, I was able to visit amazing historical sites and learn about the extensive history of multiculturalism in India and how various influences have shaped the country as it is today. I am honored to be chosen as the recipient of the John Chrystal Award and will continue to be involved in food insecurity and the World Food Prize.

By participating in the World Food Prize youth programs, I have become passionate about the issue of preserving genetic diversity, thereby ensuring future generations have the tools to maintain a robust food supply. The International Development Research Center reports that the global food supply depends on about 150 plant species and just 12 of those provide three-quarters of the world’s food. The global food supply is increasingly under threat from climate change, world population growth and the introduction or range expansion of diseases and insects. Genetic diversity is needed to safeguard potentially vital traits that could be used to combat an unexpected future pest or adapt to the needs of the world’s food supply. Plant breeders utilize genetic diversity to create improved crop varieties with traits such as yield, pest resistance and environmental stress.

However, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization finds that 75% of all crop genetic diversity has been lost since the previous century, primarily due to changes in the agricultural food system that values uniformity. Of the remaining 25%, one third is expected to become extinct by 2050. 

For the prevention of further genetic erosion, it is imperative that the remaining uncollected crop genetic diversity from wild crop relatives, unique plant populations with low representation in seed or plant collections and minor crops located in remote or understudied regions of the world, are collected and preserved before they go extinct. Many wild crop species are at risk of extinction due to habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation and climate change. Unique plant populations that are currently underrepresented in gene banks need to be collected due to current material being limited to a few individuals, which does not adequately represent all the genetic diversity within that population. These populations are most likely located in small pockets, which are extremely vulnerable to extinction due to pests or human activity. It is imperative that adequate funding is acquired so institutions can conduct plant collecting expeditions and be able to navigate the complex legal and bureaucratic logistics of collecting, importing and exporting plant material.

Backup collections of germplasm are used by institutions to ensure that if a primary collection is lost due to unforeseen circumstances, the primary collection can be reassembled and thus the crop genetic diversity preserved. It’s important that locations of backup collections are dispersed to adequately increase redundancy. There have been instances where collections are entirely or mostly destroyed, such as the seed banks destroyed in Afghanistan and Iraq due to war, conflict and looting. When tragic events like this occur, the varieties held in the collections become extinct. Humanity therefore loses more than a millennium of history and potentially important traits that may have helped combat future unforeseen challenges. Some progress has taken place in the creation of more resilient backup collection systems, such as the Svalbard Global Seed Bank located north of the Arctic Circle. The Svalbard Global Seed Bank acts as a safety deposit box that allows institutions to deposit and withdraw their backup seed collections in case their primary collection is lost or severely damaged. The location deep inside the permafrost of a mountain north of the Arctic Circle provides adequate seed storage conditions even if power is lost. When the seed bank of ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) located in Syria was deemed inaccessible due to the ongoing conflict and civil war in the region, the institution made the first withdrawal of seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Bank to establish duplicate seed collections in Lebanon and Morocco to continue their important work.


Genetic diversity will play a crucial role in the development of crops adapted to climate change and the production of food for the growing world population. To ensure these resources are available to plant breeders in the future, more funding for institutions that protect, preserve and distribute germplasm is needed. The replication of Dr. Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution in the 21st century will require the genetic diversity found in our agricultural crops.

12/09/2019 8:00 AM |Add a comment |Comments (3)
Comments
It was perfect the first time. This is very really unique helpful information.I learn so much from you as well! Thank you so much for sharing your helpful information. Keep it up.

Ghulam Mohyudin | gmdrecipes@gmail.com | https://www.gmdrecipes.com | 01/21/2020 6:58 PM
I knew Chase when he didn't know a Mungbean from a Bruchid. Go Chase Go!

ron fuhrman | fuhrman.ron@gmail.com | 12/11/2019 2:32 PM
Father of green revolution Dr. N.. E Borlauge who help in combat poverty and hidden hunger and provided food to glowing population . World can not forget there contribute..

shubham singh | shubha9793@gmail.com | http://http:/ | 12/10/2019 1:19 AM
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