The importance of genetic diversity in food systems

Published on
December 19, 2022

Biodiversity is strongly declining and this poses serious threats to the global food system. A transition is needed towards more nature positive food systems and towards diversification of production systems.

Enhanced use of the genetic diversity between and within crops, livestock, trees and aquatic species could have a range of benefits, such as healthier and more secure diets, resistance against diseases and climate influences, and long-term sustainability and resilience of the food system. These are some conclusions of two recently published reports from Wageningen University & Research. While these general conclusions seem obvious, we particularly addressed the question: what can plant and animal breeding contribute to transitions in agriculture and forestry?

Our global food systems have become increasingly uniform and the use of plant and animal genetic diversity has shown a declining trend. Although the world has about 7,000 edible crops, 66% of global food production relies on only nine crop species. Moreover, the global dairy production is increasingly dominated by the Holstein Friesian breed, and similarly, almost 50% of the worldwide production of bananas comes from the Cavendish variety. This can have many negative consequences, including increased disease and pest vulnerability, reduced resilience (for example regarding drought and climate change), increased economic vulnerability, or loss of local knowledge and culture. At the same time, maintaining sufficient plant and animal genetic diversity is of great importance to continue to be able to breed crops or animals for future systems and changing circumstances.

Potential impact of enhanced genetic diversity in food systems

A first WUR report discussed the trends and the potential impact of decreasing or enhanced use of crop, livestock or aquatic genetic diversity in relation to four different food system dimensions: 1) safe and healthy diets, 2) food security, 3) inclusiveness and equal benefits, and 4) sustainability and resilience. A general conclusion was that in the long run (further) decline in genetic diversity can pose serious threats to the sustainability and resilience of food systems. However, more diversity in food systems also increases its complexity, which makes it more difficult to manage and it often comes at the cost of short-term economic efficiency.

Furthermore, it appears that companies and organizations along the value chain generally aim for an increased sustainability of production in the broad sense, with limited direct attention for the diversity of species, varieties and breeds used for production. In this report, we discussed enablers (for example improved knowledge exchange and collaboration between stakeholders and local parties) and barriers (for example barriers regarding legislation and high production costs) in relation to increasing or decreasing use of plant and animal genetic diversity in food systems.

Breeding for diversity

A recent, second WUR report explored challenges and opportunities for the breeding sector, related to diversification of production systems, and in the context of the challenges and necessary transition in agriculture and forestry. The breeding sector will have to play an important role in making available a diverse portfolio of well-adapted genetic material for a range of future production systems.

The report features five innovative agricultural production and forestry systems, and presents the result of discussions between scientists, breeders, and pioneer entrepreneurs. Conclusions were drawn about the contribution of biodiversity and genetic diversity on the sustainability and resilience of systems, about new breeding goals, and priorities for breeding and research. One conclusion, for example, is that for future production systems the natural environment and local context will become leading (including climate- and biodiversity-related constraints and objectives). Consequently, the production system characteristics follow the environment, and breeding must follow the changing production system.

In the future we want to further investigate the relationships between wider genetic resources use, beneficial species/breed/variety interactions, and how these may contribute to the resilience of production systems. Increased (data) complexity must be managed in research and breeding, making the best use of new technologies, methods and different breeding approaches.