Loss of biodiversity is narrowing the options for new crops, reducing variations for breeding, and fueling a yield gap owing to a decline in pollinators, such as insects, bats and birds.

Scientists are now calling for the protection of the biological diversity of fruits and vegetable species as well as their wild relatives.

Writing in their policy brief Safeguarding and using Fruit and Vegetables Biodiversity the researchers further called for what they termed as “a 10-year global rescue plan” with an investment of at least US$250 million over the life of the plan.

They noted that there is global decline in all forms of biodiversity yet many fruits and vegetable species are not preserved in genebanks.

The scientists from research partners of the Scientific Group for the Food Systems Summit who wrote the policy brief were drawn from the World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF),World Vegetable Centre, National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation, US Department of Agriculture, Bioversity International, Crops For the Future;  International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT); International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development; Laboratory of Genetics, Biotechnology and Seed Sciences, University of  Abomey-Calavi and Crop Trust.

They note that biodiversity is threatened, is poorly conserved, and is largely undocumented.

The loss of biodiversity is narrowing the options for new crops, reducing variations for breeding, and fueling a yield gap owing to a decline in pollinators, such as insects, bats and birds.

Further, the loss constrains long-term progress towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and any future goals.

“Fruit and vegetable species and varieties, their wild relatives, and pollinators and other associated organisms underpin diverse food production systems and contribute to worldwide health and nutrition,” said Roeland Kindt, who is a senior ecologist with ICRAF’s Tree Productivity and Diversity research group.

It will require a global awareness campaign to safeguard and sustainably use fruit and vegetable biodiversity and a 10-year global rescue plan to reduce and reverse the decline in this biodiversity, he added.

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Fruits and vegetables are playing an increasingly important role in the new global research and development agenda that emphasizes nutrition and healthy diets as part of action to adapt to the climate crisis.

They also play major roles in safeguarding biodiversity, ending poverty and improving farmers’ livelihoods.

“There are about 1,100 vegetable species known worldwide and at least 1,250 recorded fruit species in the Neotropics alone,” said Kindt.

This includes species with extremely high nutritional values and some that are adapted to harsh environments. These two qualities alone offer the chance to produce nutrient-dense foods available to local and global communities in the face of the climate crisis.

Climate-adapted varieties with novel flavours, high nutritional values and resistance to pests and diseases lend themselves to further availability worldwide.

Fruits and vegetables and their wild relatives are sources of genetic variation that is used by plant breeders and researchers to increase the genetic diversity of new cultivated varieties.

“Wild populations also support key ecosystem functions and are direct food sources for traditional communities globally, contributing up to 30 per cent of the daily intake of vitamins A and C of people in rural and forest communities in certain local food systems,” he said.

What’s more, most fruits and some vegetables depend heavily on pollinators, which, together with dispersers of seeds, like birds and ground-dwelling animals, are also important for maintaining the viability of wild populations.

Yet diversity is continuing to decline in fields and natural ecosystems as part of the overall rapid decline in biodiversity.

Most fruit-tree species and their wild relatives and a quarter of the 1100 recognized vegetable species do not appear in any genebank, including the CIFOR-ICRAF bank.

These losses, conservation gaps, and the narrowed options for new crops will likely limit progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

The rescue plan should be under the umbrella of a global initiative endorsed by the Plant Treaty, write the authors. Innovative research into how to better conserve, understand and monitor biodiversity needs to be included for support in the plan.

Strategies already underway to safeguard fruit and vegetable genetic resources and to protect pollinators and other organisms should be incorporated.

The second condition for success is the establishment of a global partnership among custodians of fruit and vegetable biodiversity — such as women and men ‘champion’ farmers, national parks, genebanks, and botanic gardens — and users of this diversity, including farmer groups, small and large seed companies, and public breeding programs, write the authors.

Access and arrangements for sharing benefits need to be formalised and an open network of farmers, breeders and researchers established globally for preservation of genetic resources.

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