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Plant diversity pact comes into force but animal gene pool shrinking - UN agency

Plant diversity pact comes into force but animal gene pool shrinking - UN agency

An international treaty to ensure the genetic plant diversity that is vital for human survival will come into force this summer following its ratification by 12 European countries and the European Community, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced today.

At the same time, however, the agency warned of an alarming loss of domestic animal breeds worldwide with potentially dangerous consequences in dealing with famine, drought and epidemics.

The latest ratifications of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture bring to 48 the number of countries that have done so, triggering the 90-day countdown to its entry into force, which will occur on 29 June.

"This is a legally binding treaty that will be crucial for the sustainability of agriculture," FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said in a news release in Rome. "The treaty is an important contribution to the achievement of the World Food Summit's major objective of halving the number of hungry people by 2015."

The Treaty will ensure that plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, which are vital for human survival, are conserved and sustainably used and that benefits from their use are equitably and fairly distributed.

There has been a dramatic reduction of biodiversity, FAO noted. Since the beginning of agriculture, around 10,000 species have been used in food and fodder production. Today 150 crops feed most human beings and just 12 crops provide 80 per cent of food energy, with wheat, rice, maize and potato alone providing 60 per cent.

Meanwhile the agency reported that the loss of domestic animal breeds around the world is continuing at an alarming rate, with 1,350 of some 6,300 breeds registered by FAO threatened by extinction or already extinct.

"Genetic diversity is an insurance against future threats such as famine, drought and epidemics," said Irene Hoffmann, Chief of FAO's Animal Production Service. "The existing animal gene pool may contain valuable but unknown resources that could be very useful for future food security and agricultural development. Maintaining animal genetic diversity allows farmers to select stocks or develop new breeds in response to environmental change, diseases and changing consumer demands," she said.

Just 14 out of the about 30 domesticated mammalian and bird species provide 90 per cent of human food supply from animals. Threats to genetic diversity include wars, pests and diseases, global warming, urbanization, intensification of agriculture and global marketing of exotic breeding material.

But by far the greatest cause of genetic erosion is failure to appreciate the value of locally adapted breeds. In many countries, farmers rely on a very limited number of modern breeds that are most suited for intensive agriculture systems.