Impatient with Hunger

In adopting the sustainable development goals (SDGs) at the United Nations summit held last month in New York City, world leaders made it very clear what agricultural research must accomplish in the years to come. By 2030, this research must, among other things, help reach goal 2 – “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture” – which has been central to the work of CIAT and other CGIAR centers since their inception. For one – and only one – of the 169 targets within the SDGs, however, 2030 is not nearly soon enough.

By 2020, according to target 2.5, we must:

Maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at the national, regional and international levels, and promote access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, as internationally agreed

Why were the experts who framed the SDGs so impatient about this particular target? I can think of at least three reasons. First, they wanted to acknowledge that collecting valuable samples of both traditional crop varieties and wild plants related to crops is exceedingly urgent. This was one of the key messages of a new study – the most comprehensive effort ever to quantify the interdependence of all countries in terms of plant genetic resources – which CIAT, the Crop Trust, and other partners prepared for the Sixth Session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty, held earlier this month in Rome, Italy. As our blog post on this study put it, “tomorrow, some of those plants might be lost forever; many have already disappeared.” Second, the 2020 target for better maintaining seed diversity recognizes that putting plant genetic resources to work in farmers’ fields – for enhanced human nutrition, greater resilience in the face of climate change, and many other benefits – takes time. Bold action in the next few years to better protect and evaluate these resources will give researchers another decade (just enough) to incorporate them into improved crop varieties and make the seed widely available to farmers, so that it can contribute to the SDGs. To cite one recent and widely publicized example, CIAT announced earlier this year that its scientists had identified dozens of improved bean lines showing strong tolerance to temperature increases of 3 degrees Celsius or even higher. These lines will go far toward reducing the vulnerability of bean crops to climate change impacts in lowland tropical areas of sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas. The secret to the success of the “heat beater” lines is that, while they look just like other common beans, they carry the genes of a sister species – the tepary bean –  which comes from the arid lands of southwestern USA and northern Mexico, and is more heat tolerant than any other grain legume in the world. The genebank at CIAT headquarters in Colombia safeguards dozens of samples of these beans. From the first crosses between tepary and common beans, to the release of the first heat-tolerant bean variety in Nicaragua took about 10 years. A third reason for fast-tracking the conservation of seed diversity in the SDGs is that, not only must the target be reached very soon but it can be and with a relatively modest investment. An expenditure today of just US$625, on average, is sufficient to conserve forever a single crop variety held in an international genebank. Along with the CIAT genebank, CGIAR has 10 others, whose efforts should be strengthened through measures such as timely upgrading and targeted collection of potentially high-value resources that are at immediate risk. In a spirit of urgency and confidence about getting the job done, CIAT embarked a year or so ago on the development of a state-of-the-art genebank at its headquarters. Detailed architectural plans have been completed, and our fundraising for this initiative is starting to gain momentum, with early support from the government of our host country, Colombia, as well as Germany. The new genebank will store and distribute more seed of the crops CIAT improves (beans, cassava, and tropical forages) plus others under better conditions. Beyond this, the novel facility will also generate and make available vast amounts of genomic information that can help unlock the secret power of conserved seeds. In addition, it will serve as a focus for innovative training and outreach, aimed at creating the capacity and political will to translate seeds into sustainable development.


Ruben Echeverría will take part in a panel discussion on the new Sustainable Development Agenda, dealing specifically with Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2), during a side event organized in connection with the World Food Prize/Borlaug Dialogue by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in collaboration with the Alliance to End Hunger and to be held on 14 October 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa, USA.