The convention was established in response to both the increasing rate of plant extinction (through habitat loss), fears by poorer nations of “biopiracy”, and the increasing agricultural use of land for high-value crops, to the exclusion of lesser-value ones–a practice that diminishes crop biodiversity. These lesser-value crops are typically grown by independent and small farms in less economically advanced countries. Many of these so-called “orphan crops” risk becoming extinct. Further, many species of plant or tree that fall outside the conventional definition of agriculture–such as the sea-water tolerant mangrove tree–are being ignored, to the possible peril of future agriculture.
Recent warming trends pose the greatest threat to preserving global “agrobiodiversity” due to its predicted alterations in temperature, precipitation, and sea level (thus the intrusion of saline water into fresh water ecosystems). Also, computer models show that global warming will increase the frequency and duration of flood and drought cycles. To protect civilization’s long-term food supply (and to protect against the social chaos of food shortages from consequent crop failures) from these potentially calamitous effects, scientists and agricultural policy experts, in cooperation with various governments, have begun establishing cryogenic gene banks to preserve the seeds of various, valuable crops for future agricultural use. The most notable example of this is the International Rice Research institute (IRRI) in the Philippines which stores over 100,000 strains of rice.
Cryogenic gene banks, however, are enormously costly to run. In addition, these tend to focus on the relatively few types of major crops used by human populations–such as rice, wheat, corn, potatoes and soy (which are more commercially valuable, but which also promote agricultural homogeneity). Many agricultural scientists are urging the accession of other types of crops and wild species (the orphan crops noted earlier), such as various, grain legumes, millets and tubers (whose genes may hold the key for resistance to drought, salinity, and pestilence*). As a response to these factors, the Global Biodiversity Trust, in cooperation with the government of Norway (started in 2007), began constructing the Svalbard Gene Vault. The isolated, air-locked vault, which is located near the North Pole, removes the need for expensive (and energy hungry), cryogenic technology and will have the capacity to preserve some four million “accessions”–a sufficient sampling of the current genetic variability of human civilization’s most economically valuable crops.
While conservation of plants in the wild and on farms plays an important role in the biodiversity game, these realms are constantly being challenged by invasive species, human destruction (whether through outright land clearing or poor farming techniques), and even global market factors. Thus gene banks are quickly becoming the most practical and effective way, if more expensive, to insure that the past 10, 000 years of human agrobiodiversity is preserved for future generations. Indeed, the future of these generation depends on it.
Concerning the impact of human-induced climate change on human agriculture, eco-technologist M. S. Swaminathan (of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India) wrote in a summer 2009 editorial for Science Magazine: “The loss of each gene and species therefore limits our options for the future.”
The current model for agobiodiversity preservation stresses the need for greater public-private partnering on an international level. Laying the groundwork for initiating these partnerships will be one of the main items on the agenda of the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, this December.