The United Nations has designated May 22 International Day for Biological Diversity. This year’s theme, Maintaining Biodiversity: Sustaining People and Their Livelihoods, dovetails beautifully with many of CIP’s goals, said Noelle Barkley, manager of genetic resources conservation at International Potato Center (CIP) genebank located in Lima, Peru.
“A layperson needs to care about genetic diversity of agricultural species because the ‘selfish’ reason of wanting to eat, obtain proper nutrition, and have access to a wide variety of fruits and vegetables at their disposal,” said Dr. Barkley, who has worked at numerous genebanks around the world. She attained her doctorate in molecular genetics at the University of California, Riverside and joined the genebank at CIP in 2015. (Read more about the genebank here and here.)
“Production/commercial agriculture tends to be grown in monoculture, depending on where you are at [in the world],” especially in industrialized nations, Dr. Barkley said. “The problem with that is that environmental pressures and [plant] diseases change over time, so genetic diversity is an insurance policy for our future, so we are able to feed people, continue to grow particular crops, and adapt” to new growing conditions.
No crop is immune to changing climate or morphing viruses, she explained. Even as CIP focuses on root and tuber crops (potato, sweetpotato, Andean roots), other researchers are consumed with screening diversity of genebank materials to find plants that can resist current threats that are affecting banana, apple, and citrus production, to name just a few that are jeopardized by new diseases. “You can’t rely on the same one or two varieties year after year.” Genebanks in combination with breeding programs can produce new combinations of genes that resist diseases that arise, produce more nutritious foods, or develop higher yielding crops for the developing world.
CIP’s genebank and others like it around the world conserve bits of genetic material that could prove hardy in the face of late blight, for example, or able to grow in the face of punishing drought. “We have 6,000 different potatoes, 6,500 sweetpotatoes, and 2,500 Andean roots and tubers conserved,” Dr. Barkley said. “Unless you have been to South America, you have probably never seen, heard or tasted most of the variation that exist in root and tuber crops.” Nevertheless, this and other germplasm storage facilities serve as bulwark against biodiversity losses and may hold the keys to feeding countless hungry people in the decades to come.
“By halting biodiversity loss, we are investing in people, their lives and their well-being,” according the UN’s Website about the May 22 event.
Read more here about International Day for Biological Diversity, which is promulgated by the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity treaty. The 13th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 13) is slated to be held in Cancun, Mexico December 4 -17.