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Visions of a sustainable food future

Peter Wenzl, Program Leader, Genetic Resources

“Genebanks are the raw material with which to reshape agriculture and improve diets for the 21st century”

Seeds, climate, and diets in the 21st century

We are what we eat, but what we eat may need to change. That’s because of what’s happening to our planet and what we’re learning about the microbes in our gut. How can genebanks help?

Climate change predictions vary, but they don’t seem to be getting any more optimistic. Severe yield losses are plausible around the world, and severe climate change may transform the agricultural map in regions like sub-Saharan Africa and Central America. The risk of a shock to the global food system is increasing. At the same time, the global population keeps growing, urbanizing, and shifting to “Westernized” diets relying on cereal grains, sugar, vegetal oils, and livestock products.

While undernourishment around the world has dropped by almost half in the last century, obesity and diabetes are spreading as “Westernized” diets are becoming more popular. Yet, there are native people whose traditional diets contain either more carbohydrates or more animal proteins than Western diets, and they’re perfectly healthy. Scientists still don’t understand exactly why. But it appears people on “ancestral” diets have a more diverse microbiome (mixture of gut bacteria) than people consuming “Westernized” diets characterized by an unprecedented density of “acellular” carbohydrates (cereal flour, sugar). “Westernized” microbiomes seem to be skewed towards fewer microbial species that appear to cause systemic inflammation leading to obesity and other diseases.

Why does all this matter for genebanks? Well, they offer solutions to both problems of climate change and diet-related chronic illnesses. The hundreds of thousands of plant varieties conserved in the world’s genebanks are the raw material with which to reshape agriculture and improve diets for the 21st century. This will happen in two ways. First, genetic improvement will help make our crops more resilient to drought, heat, and pests and diseases. Second, they will help us shift towards more “evolutionarily appropriate” diets based on a more diverse range of nutrient-dense food crops.

Already, CIAT’s genebank has a lot to offer. It holds the world’s largest collections of key crops underpinning the supply of healthy carbohydrates (cassava) and plant/animal proteins (beans, forages) in tropical food systems. But because of the scale and confluence of these challenges, we have decided to expand and improve it.

Future Seeds will be much more than just a genebank. It will be a global hub for plant genetic resources and a driver for bio-innovation in tropical food systems. As well as conserving vital crop collections as a “genetic insurance policy,” it will also help leverage innovations in genomics and other technologies to home in on useful traits. It will also be a platform to connect to regional genebanks with whom we’ll deploy cutting-edge technologies across a broad range of food crops, while also spreading awareness about the evolving policy frameworks regulating genetic resources.

The mainstreaming of DNA sequencing and genomic prediction methods in genebanks, image-based phenotyping, genome editing and other exciting approaches enable us to harness genetic resources in a more comprehensive and targeted manner than was possible in the past. I’m convinced that, if used wisely, crop diversity will help us catch up and keep pace with the profound transformations taking place across tropical food systems, perhaps re-aligning people, plants, and the planet in new, unsuspected ways!

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