Introduction

  • What are plant genetic resources?

    Are you aware of blue potatoes, white strawberries or green tomatoes? You don't? These are almost forgotten old varieties of crops, which proved themselves as valuable plant genetic resources being rediscovered by breeders right up to gardeners.

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    Are you aware of blue potatoes, white strawberries or green tomatoes? You don't? These are almost forgotten old varieties of crops, which proved themselves as valuable plant genetic resources being rediscovered by breeders right up to gardeners.

    Plant genetic resources of agricultural and horticultural crops are defined as propagating material of plants used in the past, present or with potential utilisation value including plants suitable for breeding purposes. The definition of plant genetic resources includes not only crops but also their wild relatives and wild plants.

    Why do we conserve plant genetic resources?
    Plant genetic resources have got an inestimable economic value. This diversity is the basis for the production not only for food, pharmaceuticals and commodities but also for biotechnology goods.

  • Importance of plant genetic resources

    Preserving of the adaptability of plants for food and agriculture and safeguarding the food supply of the worlds population depend strongly on a sufficient genetic diversity of these resources.

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    Over and over again one can read about threatened plant and animal species facing extinction resulting in an irrecoverable loss of genetic diversity (genetic erosion). Therefore, the conservation of biological diversity is increasingly important. Especially plant genetic resources which are among other things the basis for our food security are endangered and respectively some already extinct.

    They are a pivotal part of agrobiodiversity and thus play an important role in food security as plants are of fundamental importance for agricultural production. This is due to their ability to use the sun's energy in order to produce nutrient and energy supply for human consumption and livestock.

    About 7,000 plant species are used or cultivated by mankind. But in agriculture only few plant species play a significant part world-wide. They are used as crops for arable farming, grassland management, horticulture, viticulture and for the production of renewable resources. In contrast, the utilisation of wild plants e.g. as soft fruits (berries) or medicinal and aromatic plant species is of low significance, but can still be of regional importance.

    Most cultivated plants are a result of breeding, except for autochthonous grassland. In this regard, the availability of plant genetic resources is important as basis for future crop breeding and breeding research activities.

  • Facts and Figures of plant genetic resources

    Up to now, approximately 250,000 plant species are described on earth, thereof 30,000 are edible plant species of which 7,000 species are used or cultivated. Despite this huge diversity of species only 150 plant species play a significant part in human nutrition world-wide.

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    Three plant species feed the world


    Up to now, approximately 250,000 plant species are described on earth, thereof 30,000 are edible plant species of which 7,000 species are used or cultivated. Despite this huge diversity of species only 150 plant species play a significant part in human nutrition world-wide.

    \"It is estimated that several thousand species have been used for food and in agriculture in human history. However, today only about 150 plant species make up the diets of the majority of the world's population\" is reported by the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

    Presently, 95 % of the world's calorie needs are covered by 30 plant species. However, the yield of just three species -wheat, rice and maize - provide almost 50 % of the world's calorie needs.

    Situation in Germany

    Within Central Europe and Germany only a fraction of the possible crops are being cultivated and used. Due to a reinforced specialisation and intensification in the post Second World War period, the number of cultivated species declined considerably.
    In German agriculture only some 25 cash crops and 35 forage crops are cultivated. Presently, there are some 70 vegetable crops, 30 fruit crops and 70 medicinal and aromatic plant species cultivated in German horticultural production.

    Approximately, 48 % of the German land area is used by agriculture with 60 % of the arable land dominated by only a few cereal crops - basically winter wheat.

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    Abb. : Percentage of cultivation area of different cereals of the total cereal cultivation area in 2010. (Source STBA)

    The agricultural production is dominated by modern high-yielding varieties. Landraces are almost non-existent with the exception of some fruits, vegetables and cereal varieties. The marketing of seed and propagation material of most agricultural important crops is subject to the German Seed Trade Act. Only seeds of varieties that have been registered can be marketed.

    There are more than 2,700 national and many thousands of European registered varieties and therefore a huge diversity is available for agriculture in Germany. But, in practice within the main crops like winter wheat (cultivated on 3.1 million hectare) often only few varieties dominate in cultivation. However, varieties are subject to frequent replacements due to constant improvements in breeding and the release of new promising varieties.

    Some 3,600 plant species occur wild, e.g. their in situ occurrence is described. Out of this number, 1,000 species do have an actual or potential value for use. Taking into consideration two additional categories of use \"plants used for breeding and breeding research\" and \"ornamental plants\" another 1,800 species can be added as \"native\" plant genetic resources. Ex situ conservation of plant genetic resources in Germany is conducted in a couple of genebanks (approximately 155,000 accessions of more than 3,000 species) as well as by over 100 botanical gardens and complemented by special collections for fruits, grapevine and ornamental plants kept by public Laender and communal institutions as well as private holders.

  • Endangerment

    According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, some 75 % of the diversity of cultivated plants has been lost over the last 100 years.

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    The range of varieties is subject to ongoing changes. On variety level frequent replacements form old varieties towards new varieties take place. It is assumed, that some 75 % of genetic diversity of cultivated plants has been lost (genetic erosion). For important agricultural crops part of the disappearing diversity is safeguarded via ex situ conservation in genebanks. For many other crops the disappearance of varieties in cultivation implies the irrecoverably lost of genes, gene combinations and therefore of genetic diversity.

  • Framework and Measures

    The framework and main measures in the area of plant genetic resources are determined by the National Programme for Genetic Resources of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops of the Ministry for Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection.

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    A new possibility for the further implementation of the goals of the National Programme came up with the establishment of a programme for model- and demonstration projects for conservation, sustainable use and innovative approaches for the utilisation of agrobiodiversity .

    At international level, the most important framework regarding plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture came into force in 2004. This International Treaty especially calls for the sustainable use of plant genetic resources. Through the International Treaty, countries agree to establish an efficient, effective and transparent Multilateral System to facilitate access to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. The Multilateral System applies to over 60 major crops and forages. The International Treaty provides regulations for sharing the benefits arising from the use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture in a fair and equitable way through information-exchange, access to and the transfer of technology and capacity building and the sharing of monetary benefits arising from the marketing of products, developed from material received from the Multilateral System.

    The conditions for access and benefit-sharing are set out in a standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) . The agreement is only in the English version of a contractual nature. For ease of understanding is also still a German version available.

    Presently, 129 countries have ratified the International Treaty.