This article is cross-posted from The International Potato Center (CIP) website. CIP, a CGIAR Center, works with partners to achieve food security, well-being, and gender equity for poor people in root and tuber farming and food systems in the developing world. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 75 percent of plant genetic diversity was lost in the last century alone. With each plant species lost, the world loses the impact its genetic potential might have in safeguarding the global food supply.  Each plant adapts to the stresses it faces in its environments. Such adaptations could be the key to developing new varieties that help farmers confront pest infestations, disease and the challenges posed by climate change.

Genebanks, such as the one housed at the International Potato Center (known as CIP for its acronym in Spanish) help preserve diversity that can be used to fuel crop-driven hunger solutions for generations to come. Dr. David Ellis, head of the CIP genebank, shares with us four ways genebanks help safeguard against hunger.

How does maintaining crop diversity protect against hunger in the long run?

Urbanization, road construction and climate change are causing a rapid loss of plant diversity. In the case of potato, we’ve seen that small rises in temperature mean that farmers need to go further up the mountain to plant at temperatures better suited to traditional varieties. Those potatoes might not, however, produce well at that higher altitude. The loss of one potato variety might not be a problem today, but it may be a problem tomorrow if that particular variety has a unique characteristic, such as disease resistance, that could help develop varieties suited to changing climatic conditions.

To put that loss into perspective, potato farmers in the Andes have had to move their crops up to 200 meters up slope in the past 30 years alone. Protecting the existing diversity today means that we’re ensuring your great-grandchildren have the same opportunities to use diversity for crop improvement that we have today.

Preserving genetic diversity is critical to developing new varieties that help farmers adapt to the challenges they face. As of 2014, almost two million hectares have been planted worldwide with the help of CIP germplasm. (Sara A. Fajardo for CIP)

 How do genebanks help build farmer resilience?

The advantage of storing the diversity from across the globe is that plants evolve and adapt to their environment. Each area diversifies the crop individually based on selection or evolution.

We have generated genetic fingerprints of our accessions.  We can now go into the field in Peru, and using these fingerprints, we can positively discern  if a particular potato a farmer is growing offers new diversity or falls in line with diversity we already have.

Such fingerprints allow researchers to see the correlation between enhanced attributes that are important to smallholder farmers, and thus better predict which varieties might work for these farmers in facing climate change challenges or enhancing the nutritional value of their crops. Knowing what we have increases the speed at which we can get improved varieties into farmers’ hands.

How do genebanks help farmers cope with the impact of climate change?

Part of what we’re facing in climate change are new emerging diseases and an increased prevalence of pests. One consequence of climate change is that insects and diseases are continuously evolving and adapting, often faster than the plants, to changing environmental conditions. What we’re seeing is an increased need for multiple sources of resistance whereas only one may have worked in the past.

East Africa has been facing challenges from Uganda-99, a particularly virulent form of wheat rust.  Wheat genebanks around the world were able to provide germplasm with Uganda-99 resistance, which breeding programs are using to produce elite Uganda-99 resistant varieties.   This demonstrates the need to keep genetic diversity safe, and in a readily usable form, in genebanks such as the one at CIP.

Genebanks are a source of novel traits for everything from drought resistance to salt tolerance, to disease and pest resistance, and even serve as a key to help increase the nutrient content of roots and tubers. Research institutions use these materials to develop varieties that build farmers’ resilience to climate change and its impacts.

 What role can genebanks play in the aftermath of a catastrophe?

 Conflicts and natural disasters can wipe out seed stocks or leave farming communities in disarray.  The razing of crops is a weapon of war. People often abandon their fields in their flight for safety. With a natural disaster, flooding or severe drought can decimate not only the current harvest but also the supply of available planting material for the next planting season.

Genebanks serve almost as an insurance policy against such catastrophes because we don’t house all of our seeds in one basket. We place back up seed collections in places like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault Having these resources available makes it easier to reestablish the diversity of the food system that existed before the emergency.

We saw this recently with Tropical Cyclone Winston, which flattened large swaths of Fiji with wind speeds of up to 145 miles per hour. CIP teamed up with the Center for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT)to provide them with 420 test tubes containing disease-free sweetpotato cultivars.  That material was then multiplied in Fiji, saving months of growing time, and helped expedite the recovery of the agricultural sector.  Genebanks can help reestablish food systems and reintroduce the diversity that once existed there. If that diversity was not preserved, genebanks can help introduce crop diversity that might revive the food supply, and allow farmers over time to become as productive as they once were.

Catastrophe can also serve as a natural selection pressure. The plants that can survive and continue to thrive post-emergency may show a natural resilience to extreme conditions and can reveal genotypes able to survive in harsh environments. The collection, storage, and study of such materials benefit all of humanity.