Genetic Resources for Climate Change: room for optimism?

Dr Hannah Jaenicke, one of the organizers of last week’s 4th International Symposium on Plant Genetic Resources: Genetic Resources for Climate Change last week, kindly sent in this summary of the proceedings from Brisbane. Many thanks to her and all our moles at IHC2014 who have also contributed over the past week.

The symposium was held during the 29th International Horticultural Congress in Brisbane, Australia 18-22 August 2014. There were 18 posters and 32 oral presentations given across the three themes “Utilization of plant genetic resources”, “Germplasm conservation strategies and technologies” and “Harnessing the diversity of crop wild relatives”. Each theme was introduced by a cross-cutting keynote presentation. In addition, there were two workshops during which participants had the opportunity to discuss additional issues: a workshop on “Global conservation strategies for horticultural crops” was held on Monday 18th August with panelists from the Global Crop Diversity Trust, USDA and ACIAR and a workshop on “Strengthening informal seed systems: integrating plant genetic resources conservation within a larger development” was held on Thursday 20 August with panelists representing the private seed/nursery industry and community seed banks. This workshop was held together with the scheduled workshop on “Quality planting material” (convener: Sisir Mitra).

The quality of the posters and presentations throughout the symposium was very high and discussion with the participants was lively, despite the time and logistics constraints posed by the tight schedule of the Congress, with up to 20 parallel sessions. Despite this competition, the symposium and workshops attracted a good attendance of 30-60 participants in each session, estimated at around 200 individuals overall who participated in the symposium.

The presented activities ranged across the world, with a particular focus on the Pacific, Asia and Africa where the effects of climate change are likely to be most severe. Useful examples were provided, from successful rehabilitation activities after a typhoon, to suggestions for more climate-ready genetic resources, to technologies able to provide vital information to genebank managers and breeders to support future plant improvement. Efforts are being made to increase the genetic diversity of particularly vulnerable resources like root and tuber crops in the Pacific and to establish novel markets to increase interest in more diverse production systems. Important tools are regional and international genebanks, such as that of CePaCT, run by SPC, serving the Pacific Island countries with a particular focus on providing virus-free planting material of important vegetatively propagated root and tuber crops, and that of AVRDC, with a global mandate for vegetables, where research is underway for example on heat-tolerant tomato varieties. For commercially important genetic resources, such as Citrus, increased global networking was suggested. In addition to the important role of public and private genebanks, the increasingly recognized role of farmers as custodians of genetic resources and repositories for future genetic improvement was discussed in several papers.

Whilst the challenges that climate change will pose are huge, especially for vulnerable communities and ecosystems, the presentations during this symposium showed that already significant efforts are being taken to address the issue at the level of plant genetic resources. However, more coordinated and collective efforts are needed for more sustainable and focused impact.

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