Biodiversity(the variation of life forms within ecosystems) is nature’s insurance policy. Genetic diversity is the way in which crops adapt to changing environments; a natural weapon offering them the flexibility to deal with unforeseen events such as climate change, and giving them greater chances to resist pests and diseases.
CIP works to study, protect, and utilize the diversity of potato, sweetpotato, and other Andean root and tuber crops (ARTCs) in sustainable agriculture systems, ensuring food security and increasing incomes for the rural communities where much of these resources are concentrated.
Genetic diversity: precious but vulnerable
The inherited biological traits carried within the DNA of a crop’s genes hold the key to survival. In potato, sweetpotato, and ARTCs it is easy to see genetic diversity in the fantastic variety of shapes, colors, and tastes that they show. But these genes also contain a hidden treasure, unseen characteristics like resistance to disease and drought, providing a valuable repository of traits that breeders and farmers can use.
Crop genetic diversity is under increasing pressure from urban development, disease, and climate change, while monocropping (agricultural practices focusing on a few high-yielding varieties) leaves food supply open to threat. Little to no genetic diversity makes crops susceptible to widespread disease, as happened during the Irish Potato Famine, when the late blight pathogen wiped out entire crops of the dominant potato variety, and one million people starved to death.
From the CIP genebank to the farmers’ fields
Extensive screening of thousands of individual accessions of wild, native, and cultivated potatoes and of sweetpotatoes has helped scientists identify traits that help meet farmer needs and preferences, particularly in the face of climate change pressures. Examples of traits being explored for breeding include:
- Resistance late blight disease and 10 different viruses, which are the most harmful potato diseases in the developing world.
- Genetic resistance to the potato tuber moth and the Andean potato weevil
- Tolerance to frost, drought, heat, and soil salinity
- Higher iron content and bioavailability in potato
- Higher beta-carotene content in sweetpotato
- Disease, heat, and drought tolerance in sweetpotato
- Traits associated with cooking, taste, or processing preferences in both crops
- Higher yielding ahipa varieties adapted to agro-forestry-based and maize-mixed farming systems
A living collection: a worldwide resource
Available free upon request, material from CIP’s potato, sweetpotato and ARTC germplasm collection is used in breeding programs in over 100 countries around the world. The genebank promotes access and active use of its holdings:
- clearly identifying, documenting and cataloguing species and landraces, and the range of agronomic and consumption traits that breeders require
- analyzing genetic diversity and the geographic distribution of biodiversity in cultivated root and tuber crops and their wild ancestors
- disseminating information to scientists through a comprehensive online database for potato and sweetpotato, the first of its kind to apply bioinformatics to a genebank collection, searchable for more than 90 attributes.
Dynamic in situ ex situ conservation: the diversity of the future
Biodiversity doesn’t stand still. It is continually evolving. CIP scientists are there to keep track of the changes. In the Andean cradle from which potato crop diversity first sprang, work is going on today that will affect future global food security. Laboratory scientists work together with Andean farmers and community organizations to restore disease-free potato germplasm to its place of origin, establishing community genebanks in the field. It is here that evolution is going on under increased pressure from climate change and new pests, where adaptation continues through natural selection and crops are in the process of evolving into what will be the diversity of the future. Monitoring changes in situ, scientists also get the opportunity to discover and incorporate new varieties to the collection.
CIP entomologists analyze the impact of ecosystems’ biodiversity on root and tuber crops, including insect populations. Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques augment populations of natural predators and stabilize ecosystems, developing and refining safe, cheap and farmer-friendly cultural practices to combat a range of pests and reduce dependence on expensive, toxic pesticides.
Farmers on the front line: the traditional guardians of biodiversity
Cultivated crop biodiversity has been managed by farmers for centuries. CIP scientists study the ways in which they do it. Research documents local knowledge as well as promoting ways that farmers can continue to manage diverse resources successfully, providing them with increased options for responding to social, economic and climatic change. The mountainous and tropical areas of the world where the highest levels of diversity exist are some of the economically poorest regions on the planet. To redress this balance CIP exploits diversity as a means to help people out of poverty. Projects developing techniques to stimulate the market for different potato, sweetpotato, and ARTC products reap a two-fold benefit, increasing incomes for poor farmers and motivating them to maintain biodiversity.