Genetic diversity essential for future food production

New plant varieties are necessary to make plants resistant to new pests and plant diseases as well as adapt to a changing climate and new production systems. New and improved plant varieties are essential to increase food production. 

Plant genetic resources are the basis researchers and plant breeders use to develop new plant varieties. The genetic variation in plants is the foundation for future food production. This variation includes plant traits that can meet challenges such as diseases, poor soil quality, drought and  give us a wide range of tastes and nutritional properties. Farmers continuously need new plant varieties to be able to adapt to changes in climate, disease situation and to meet new needs and demands in the market. One example of change is the outbreak of stem rust fungus in wheat in Sweden in 2017. Stem rust is a very serious fungus disease that causes substantial damage. Pesticides having little or no effect on infected plants. Rust normally spreads quickly in a field and can cause great damage. Stem rust outbreaks have only occurred very rarely in the Nordic countries in recent years and was believed to be eradicated. A large outbreak in Sweden in 1951 reduced yields by one third. After this outbreak measures were taken and so that the conditions for stem rust were poor, and the disease almost died out in the Nordic countries. A stem rust outbreak now ocurred in 2017 and it can represent a great threat to wheat production in our area. Developing wheat varieties which are resistant to this fungus is a critical factor in combatting the disease.

Sustainable food production

Sustainable agriculture and preservation of biological diversity are strongly interlinked. Preservation, use and the development of the biological diversity of plants and animals in agriculture is a precondition for operating a local and adapted agriculture. Agriculture has always been submitted to change, new plant varieties and cultivation methods being continuously developed. Climate change and an increasing population are two reasons for the need for continued development.

Purpose of gene banks

Gene banks have been established to preserve as many plant varieties as possible, including those that are not cultivated today. There are around 1,400 gene banks around the world. Food security for current and future generations is the primary motivation behind these banks. A new climate-controlled seed storage facility was completed and brought into use at Graminor in 2017. This storage facility acts as a local gene bank for Graminor and preserves plant breeding material with traits that can we can be used in our breeding programs to develop future plant varieties. At the facility in Graminor we have the capacity to store several thousand genotypes over a longer period of time. Some of Graminor’s plant varieties are stored at NordGen (the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre). NordGen was set up to collect and preserve genetic resources for agriculture, livestock and forestry from all the Nordic countries. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, operated by NordGen, is the world’s “back up “ facility for seed store. It was opened in February 2008. At the global seed vault in Svalbard,  seeds from around the whole world are stored for long term storage. The seed vault’s mission is provide secure storage of seeds which are also stored in national, regional and international gene banks around the world. In 2017 Graminor became a part of the International Advisory Panel for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

We do not know what challenges the future holds for food production. What we do know for sure is that there will be more people and they will need more food. Growth conditions will also change and ‘new’ diseases and pests will occur, as in Sweden this year and the recurrence of stem rust. Plant breeders and researchers must have the largest possible genetic diversity to work with if they are to be able to ensure that we are as prepared as possible to develop plant varieties that can produce more food in the ‘new’ climates of the future. It is therefore vital that we preserve the diversity of our plant genetic resources. This we do through preserving the genetic seed basis and ensuring that it is available.