Nations in the warmest parts of the planet will  be hardest hit by climate change, as temperature rises are expected to be sharpest and their agricultural systems least prepared to cope with climate change impacts. Arid and semi-arid zones are expected to become drier, for one, while precipitation in other areas will be more variable and much less predictable. 

"It's clear that humankind is going to have to use all the tools at our disposal in order to face up to the challenge of producing enough food as the planet warms," said Linda Colette, Secretary of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. 

"We are constantly adding to the long inventories of known land and aquatic animals, plants, trees, invertebrates such as pollinating insects and even microscopic organisms - and their genes - and some hold the key to climate change adaptation. Not only must we conserve that genetic diversity, but we must also ensure access to them and ensure we equitably and fairly share the benefits derived from their use," she explained.

Genetic diversity under threat

FAO estimates that in the last century, about 75 percent of crop genetic diversity was lost as farmers worldwide switched to genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties and abandoned multiple local varieties. 

Having recourse to genetic material is however essential to adapt and improve agriculture in the face of threats, such as diseases or warming climate that can alter growing conditions. For example, a variety of Turkish wheat, collected and stored in a seed gene bank in 1948, was rediscovered in the 1980s, when it was found to carry genes resistant to many types of disease-causing fungi. Plant breeders now use those genes to develop wheat varieties that are resistant to a range of diseases. 

According to the most recent FAO data, 22 percent of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction. However, the local breeds that are least understood often carry genetic defenses that enable them to walk long distances to watering holes, survive with reduced water and fodder intake or fight off tropical diseases. Many ‘industrial' cattle breeds - for example, the high output dairy animals - often don't make it under such harsh conditions.

In addition:

• The world's aquatic ecosystems are made up of approximately 175 000 species of fish, mollusks, crustaceans and aquatic plants. Just ten species account for the world's haul in capture fisheries, while ten species account for half of global fish farming production;

• There are 80 000 tree species worldwide, but just 1 percent have been studied in any depth. Forests are home to 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity, while forests are being cleared at an alarming rate - with consequences for global warming;

• Invertebrates constitute 95 percent of all animal life, while the hidden treasure trove of biodiversity of micro-organisms is incalculable.

The Commission strives to halt the loss of genetic resources for food and agriculture, and to ensure world food security and sustainable development by promoting their conservation, sustainable use, including exchange, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their use.

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