UNFOLDING EVENTS all over the world are pointing in one direction; that is the imminence of climate change which may prove irreversible. The timing, magnitude of impacts and places where impacts would be felt might vary, but climate change has proven to be inescapable. Choices before nations and regions of the world require a good combination of mitigation and adaptation. The impact of climate change will obviously be felt on agriculture, food security and rural households that depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Sadly, those that will be most affected are the least equipped to cope with the consequences of climate change. Something urgent therefore has to be done.
For sustainable agriculture, food supply and livelihoods, the basic underpinning of genetic resources will increasingly come under threat due to environmental changes in forms of heats, droughts, floods and man-made disasters such as wars. It is therefore important that genetic resources be given special attention as a way of providing for the future of humanity. Africa is particularly vulnerable for a number of reasons and therefore requires urgent steps to prevent untoward consequences in form of food crisis.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in a 2014 report confirmed that climate change could pose serious threats to food security. The IPCC report also pointed to crop genetic resources as an important tool for adapting to climate change in the years ahead. The use of crop genetic material to improve food crop production, fight plant pests and adapt to the effects of climate change is increasingly being recognised. This is evident in the breeding of crop varieties that are tolerant to drought, heat, salt or certain pests, all of which could reduce food production and threaten food security.
But, like any other part of the world, there are regional, national and local variations in genetic attributes of various crops. These attributes can be exchanged to meet specific purposes. Their exchanges will, however, require cross-border access. Africa needs to take advantage of such window of exchange to boost food production, preserve some germplasms and ensure sustainability. This is necessary in view of the fact that “the use of crop genetic resources could play a crucial role in adapting to a changing climate,” according to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
IISD, however, acknowledged that “the world is losing biodiversity, including these crop genetic resources, rapidly. Much stronger efforts are needed to secure these building blocks of future food security, in seed banks, in farmers’ fields, and, in the case of the potential valuable crop wild relatives, even in areas outside their traditional agro-ecological systems.” These are already happening, including the extreme case of Svalbard Global Seed Vault or what is cynically referred to as the ‘doomsday’ seed bank. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, generally regarded as a secure seed bank on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, has the capacity to store 4.5 million crop varieties. It currently holds more than 890,000 samples from nearly every country in the world, including varieties of staple crops like maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, barley, and potato.
It has been claimed that if nuclear war or global warming kills certain crops, governments will be able to request seeds from the vault to restart their agricultural industries. Only recently, the seed vault came to the rescue after the Syrian war destroyed a major gene bank in that region. Although Svalbard was regarded as a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters, that assertion was put to the test in 2017, when melting permafrost caused by unusually warm temperatures seeped into the seed vault, although, with luck, the vault itself was not flooded. That, however, should be regarded as a warning sign that more needs to be done to keep that vault safe so as to avert global disaster.
Safety and security of genetic resources cannot be over-emphasised in Africa, a continent identified as one of the most vulnerable regions. It is only fitting to reckon with the imminence of increasing temperatures, rainfall and a recurring reduction in farm yield that could adversely affect food security. The public sector must be at the forefront in the battle to preserve genetic resources all across Africa. These genetic resources must be treated as public goods and access to them must be easy. This is because a new day has dawned in global agriculture with a new race to control the world’s plant genetic resources. In this era, the private and commercial interest seems to dominate the landscape, and operates at the genetic level rather than the level of the plant. Without proper and adequate control, the public interest could be eclipsed.
The time has come to revisit the gradual withdrawal of the public sector from agricultural investment in general—and plant breeding in particular. This policy disposition has led to the neglect of orphaned, open pollenated crops, while billions of private dollars are invested into patented varieties of corn, wheat, cotton, and soy, a source has observed. The rise in philanthropic investments is noteworthy as an alternative that has offset some of the decline in government support, but private grant support needs not be relied upon heavily as a replacement for sustained investment by the public sector. Just as nature abhors vacuum, Africa must avoid the preponderance of the intellectual property embedded in private seed development that renders the farmer a consumer rather than a producer of new seed technologies.
Of note is the inclusion of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement as part of the broader agreement establishing the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995, which marked a watershed in the perception of the ownership rights in genetic materials. How Africa applies this section to the preservation of germplasms within the continent remains to be seen. The 1978 International Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV) Convention captured the rights of researchers to use plants to develop new seed lines and the rights of farmers to save and replant seed, referred to as breeders’ and farmers’ privileges respectively. Africa needs to benefit from the essence of these provisions.
Africa needs also to take advantage of the rich diversity of plant genetic resources available to breeders, the farmers and the communities. We must harness the benefits inherent in the varieties developed by farmers over generations, usually referred to as “traditional” or “landrace” varieties, while also taking advantage of the “modern” or “improved” varieties developed by plant breeders in laboratories. We must not shy away from biotechnology, given the increased ability it can afford users to identify and transfer specific plant traits or properties, the value of plant genetic materials.
It is time to evaluate the status of Africa in all matters of genetic resources, germplasm conservation and preservation of biodiversity as a central issue in ensuring food security and sustainable rural livelihoods. We must narrow the inequality gaps among the growers of crops and producers of livestock products, and be ready to offset huge costs of enriching the resource-poor farmers to boost agricultural production while preserving biodiversity. Genetic resources should be treated as public consumption goods, and need to be preserved in situ. On a continental scale, investment in the collection, preservation, and management of genetic resource to support crop improvement is desirable and should be financed by the public sector, in the interest of the people. For Africa, this is not an option but an imperative. The future is nearer than we think, and the result of our actions or inactions will soon be obvious for all to see. We therefore need to act now.