GenRes Bridge

Future-proof agriculture thanks to genetic diversity

Circular agriculture

The Blaarkop is a robust breed of dairy cattle that has become quite rare. Photo: Shutterstock

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Diversity in animal breeds and crops is essential if we are to make agriculture sustainable and able to cope with diseases and the impact of climate change. Yet farmers often use the same breeds and crop varieties. That is why researchers at Wageningen University & Research and their European colleagues have developed a strategy for the maintenance and better use of genetic diversity.

You can find Holstein-Friesian cows – the black-and-white or red-and-white cows that originate from the Netherlands – all over the world. That is not surprising as this breed produces a lot of milk and that is what most dairy farmers want. Sipke Joost Hiemstra, director of the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands (CGN) at Wageningen University & Research, says the Holstein-Friesian is a fine and high-yield cow but not necessarily the best solution for every farmer: “Farms in more challenging production environments and more extensive farms do better with a more robust breed that doesn’t require so much attention and that can make optimal use of local feed recources.”

Rare breeds

But this requires alternative breeds to be available. In many parts of the world, local breeds have become rare because they have been replaced by specialised, high-yield breeds. Hiemstra: “There are professional breeding programmes for the dominant breeds and they are also the subject of most of the scientific research. Local breeds that are less common get less attention.” Diversity is under pressure not just in livestock farming but also in arable farming and horticulture. Farmers worldwide use the same high-yield varieties, driving out the traditional, indigenous crops. Of the 6,000 plant species that people have domesticated and eaten over the centuries, nine are dominant around the world. Just three – wheat, rice and maize – account for 50 per cent of our calories.

Many local breeds have become rare because they have been replaced by specialised breeds

The gene bank for animal resources keeps hundreds of thousands of sperm doses from global varieties. Photo: CGN

And that may become problematic, says Hiemstra. “A broad genetic basis is needed if we are to respond to the various changes ahead, not just in the climate but also in production systems and consumer preferences.” It is therefore important to maintain and make optimal use of genetic diversity. After all, those genes can only be used for plant varieties and animal breeds that are better able to withstand diseases or the effects of climate change if they are stored in a gene bank or remain accessible in the form of breeding populations.

Strategy for genetic variation

That is what the GenRes Bridge (Genetic Resources for a food-secure and forested Europe) project is all about. This three-year European project, with Hiemstra as the project manager in the Netherlands, is a collaboration between three European networks that are concerned with the genetic sources of crops, farm animals and trees respectively: the European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Recources (ECPGR), the European Regional Focal Point for Animal Genetic Resources (ERFP) and European Forest Genetic Resources Programme (EUFORGEN). The researchers in GenRes Bridge have developed a European strategy for the maintenance and sustainable use of these genetic resources. They hope this strategy will feed into European and national policies. However, more awareness of the importance of genetic diversity is needed for this to happen. Hiemstra: “The words ‘genetic variation’ of ‘domestic biodiversity’ hardly appear in Europe’s biodiversity strategy.” That is why the GenRes Bridge strategy, which was launched at the end of 2021, is relevant.

The CGN gene database stores as many seeds as possible, including those of peas. Photo: CGN

For example, there should be a focus on a set of complementary sub-strategies aimed at the maintenance and sustainable use of genetic diversity. In all three domains – animals, plants and trees – the ex situ genes (in gene banks) and in situ genes (in living populations of animals and plants) are equally important. Hiemstra: “For example, if a disease spreads in a farm crop, it is important to have a backup in the gene bank that you can use to breed disease-free or resistant varieties.”

Climate-proof

A second recommendation is to do more to encourage variation in the use of genetic diversity. “Optimum utilisation of genetic diversity in crops, farm animals and trees, both within and between species, is crucial in the transition to sustainable and resilient agriculture and forestry. For example, crops could be developed that are better able to cope with drought, or alternatively very wet conditions.” A more region-specific approach should be taken to challenges such as climate change and the loss of biodiversity, because each region has distinctive conditions.

Plant and animal breeding are very important for the Dutch economy here and that creates obligations

Variety in the use of the genetic diversity in crops, amongst other things, is essential for the transition towards sustainable and resilient agriculture and forestry. Photo: Shutterstock

In this regard, Hiemstra also thinks mixed, multi-species farming systems have something to offer, where the farmer grows various crops, keeps various breeds of farm animals or combines arable farming with livestock farming. Hiemstra: “Mixed systems have both technical and commercial advantages. They increase the biodiversity in the system and make it more resilient. If your farm is more diverse in terms of crops and animal breeds, you are better able to control diseases and pests. And if one crop performs poorly due to the weather conditions, you always have another crop that compensates or you have income from your livestock.”

Helping one another

The collaboration between CGN and other European institutes and gene banks has already delivered tangible results. They have not only helped develop a strategy for genetic diversity but have also set up a peer review system for gene banks, says Hiemstra. “This lets us help one another improve our quality and gene bank operations.” They have also launched the Genetic Resources Journal, with an accessible website on the maintenance and use of genetic diversity. The Dutch project manager hopes the project will set the agenda and drive policy in the years ahead. “We are ahead of the game in the Netherlands in terms of breeding for crops and farm animals. Plant and animal breeding are very important for the economy here and that also creates obligations. We need to safeguard the genetic diversity in gene banks and keep it available for future use. There is still a certain amount of local diversity but farmers are under pressure to keep or further improve certain breeds and varieties. That needs to change. After all, it is the farmers and gene banks together that keep agricultural biodiversity intact.”

European research context

Genetic Resources for a food-secure and forested Europe (GenRes Bridge) addresses the following European policy challenge: The maintenance and sustainable utilisation of genetic sources of plants, animals and trees Wageningen University & Research groups involved: Wageningen Livestock Research, Wageningen Plant Research, Wageningen Environmental Research, the Centre for Genetic Resources the Netherlands (CGN) European and other countries involved: Bulgaria, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Switzerland and United Kingdom

Duration 2019 – 2021

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