Summary report, 14 November 2023
Global Crop Diversity Summit 2023
The Global Crop Diversity Summit, held in Berlin, Germany, on 14 November 2023, allowed stakeholders from around the world to reflect on the current state and future role of agri-food systems in the face of interlinked global crises. Discussions centered on the role of genebanks, including seed banks, in preserving and restoring crop diversity, with participants reflecting on pathways towards enhanced international cooperation to support genebanks and their sustainable funding.
Highlights related to, among other things:
- awareness raising on the value of crop diversity and its conservation in seed banks and genebanks among decision makers, farmers, and the general public to enhance incentive structures;
- the development of crop varieties with increased resilience to pests, diseases, drought, and salinity, and with improved nutritional characteristics;
- the creation of safety duplications to back up collections, should individual genebanks be affected by disasters or conflicts, as happened in Syria and Ukraine;
- repatriation initiatives that support in situ conservation;
- capacity-building support for genebanks, including with regard to data management practices and technology; and
- the need to overcome limitations related to project-based funding by providing sustainable funding for the operation of genebanks.
The Summit convened amid growing global attention for food systems, their current weaknesses, and their potential contribution to achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and its Stocktaking Moment in July 2023 constituted important milestones in this regard. Many further hope that the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 28) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will help raise awareness of the interlinkages between climate and food systems through the adoption of a political declaration at the margins of the conference. Momentum was also brought about by recent developments under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). In 2022, parties to the CBD adopted the Global Biodiversity Framework, which aims to halt biodiversity loss, and includes a target on the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resources, digital sequence information and associated traditional knowledge. In 2023, the ITPGRFA resumed negotiations on the enhancement of its Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-sharing, after negotiations came to a halt in 2019.
The Summit was organized by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust), a non-profit international organization dedicated to conserving crop diversity and making it available for use globally, forever, for the benefit of everyone. In total, 195 participants attended the Summit in-person and another 1,100 joined online.
Moderator Katie Gallus welcomed participants to the meeting. Joachim von Braun, President, Pontifical Academy of Sciences, underlined that the Summit sends a clear message: crop diversity is essential for healthy food systems, and preserving crop diversity requires global cooperation among genebanks, scientists, agriculture innovators, and farmers. He added that the Crop Trust fosters such cooperation towards better protected and better utilized crop diversity. Von Braun further stressed this Summit’s role in exploring avenues towards sustainable funding for genebanks, noting funding is currently insufficient.
Yasmina El Bahloul, Chair, Governing Body of ITPGRFA, called for urgent solutions to secure the future of the world’s plant biodiversity, as well as sustainable food and nutrition security. She drew attention to recent developments in the plant genetic resources world, such as the adoption of the Global Biodiversity Framework. She noted the Global Crop Diversity Summit is an opportunity to reflect on these developments and also contribute to the upcoming 10th meeting of the ITPGRFA Governing Body. El Bahloul encouraged participants to strategize on collective action to increase political awareness and secure the much-needed funding for the conservation of plant genetic resources.
Speaking via video message, Jhenifer Mojica Flórez, Minister of Agriculture, Colombia, underlined the importance of traditional production practices of family agriculture carried out by peasants, Indigenous Peoples, and Afro-Colombian people. She stressed that these practices are essential for continuing to produce food in a sustainable manner. Mojica called for investments in biological agro-inputs, saying these would help reduce the heavy dependence on artificial fertilizers and pesticides that degrade soils, pollute water sources, and cause irreparable damage.
Maltreated planet, malnourished people: the urgent need for a transformation of our agri-food systems
In a video message, Alvaro Lario, President, International Fund for Agricultural Development, expressed concern about food systems’ detrimental effects on both the planet and its people. He highlighted that the excessive use of pesticides threatens human health and destroys ecosystems, and still does not effectively address food insecurity. Lario underlined that small-scale farms harbor greater biodiversity than larger farms, and that agro-ecological approaches, such as agro-forestry and crop rotation, improve nutrition while safeguarding ecosystems. He stressed that a sustainable transformation can only be achieved if biodiversity, climate, food security, and inclusivity concerns are factored in, and called for supporting rural people and small-scale farmers as change agents.
Cem Özdemir, Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture, Germany, discussed the disappearance of some millennia-old crop varieties due to farmers’ preference for plants that are easier to handle. He noted that the agriculture sector has become too dependent on pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation, and underlined that a global food system that relies on a limited number of varieties is at greater risk of falling victim to plant diseases, pests, and climate extremes. He stressed that crop diversity is essential for sustainable agriculture and urged actively keeping as many varieties in use as possible, while securing those not actively used by other means, such as in genebanks.
Sophie Healy-Thow, Global Youth Campaigns Coordinator, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, delineated her journey from science experiments to engaging in a youth-led movement for food systems transformation. She highlighted youth engagement in the food systems pavilion at the UNFCCC’s COP 28. She underscored the value of accessible communication for awareness raising, pointing to collaboration between young people and the EAT-Lancet Commission on translating research articles into digestible formats, and praising an episode of the TV series “Futurama” for bringing the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to young peoples’ attention.
In a panel discussion, João Campari, Global Leader, WWF Food Practice, pointed to the 2023 edition of the State of Food and Agriculture report, noting it offers a framework for assessing the hidden costs and benefits of agri-food systems. He urged aligning incentive structures to support food systems transformation, noting global calorie intake is heavily skewed towards a small set of animal and plant species and that the price of food does not take into account environmental costs.
Roberto Jaguaribe Gomes de Mattos, Ambassador of Brazil to Germany, said multilateral cooperation is key and called for “diverse-minded countries” to engage with one another to develop solutions. He underscored that approaches need to be tailored to local conditions, pointing to differences in terms of land-use allocation and biomes. He noted reliance on imported fertilizers remains a challenge for many countries. As a particular challenge for Brazil’s transition towards low-carbon agriculture, he emphasized underutilized pastureland, which is a source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Bjørg Sandkjær, State Secretary for International Development, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway, noted the world is not on track to reach the SDGs and underscored the need to achieve food security without compromising the environment, pointing to the role of social safety nets. As a key measure to close the financing gap, she emphasized public de-risking of private investment and pointed to the “Financing for Agricultural Small-and-Medium Enterprises in Africa Fund” launched by Norway and the US Agency for International Development.
With regard to the UNFCCC’s COP 28, Campari urged incorporating food systems approaches into nationally determined contributions under the Paris Agreement. He underlined this should not just be in relation to agriculture, but also to dietary shifts, which hold the greatest potential for mitigating food systems’ greenhouse gas emissions, and the reduction of food loss and food waste. He also called for the Rio Conventions to develop a joint strategy for food systems transformation. Gomes de Mattos underscored the importance of research, including on biodefense strategies, and emphasized digitalization as an opportunity.
Sandkjær urged stimulating local food production based on local varieties, pointing to the repercussions on global food security of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. She further drew attention to norms, policies, and legislations that restrict women’s access to land ownership, credit, agricultural information, and markets, underscoring the need to level the playing field.
Nature as a Solution: The Role of Crop Diversity in Transforming our Agri-Food Systems
Simone Passarelli, US Department of State, presented the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS), explaining it aims to foster more resilient food systems and boost agricultural productivity and nutrition by promoting diversity and healthy soils. She described the VACS philosophy of building resilience both above-ground, focusing on nutritious and climate-resilient crops, and below-ground, focusing on better land-use planning, healthy soils and access to soil information systems.
In a video message, Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, underlined that diversity in production, consumption, and income sources is necessary to deal with current crises such as climate change and conflicts in various parts of the world. Using a pyramid metaphor to explain how to diversify our diets, Haddad said diverse planting material to diversify the types of crops grown forms the base of the pyramid, and diets form its top. He said crop diversification calls for supporting farmers with the needed technology and infrastructure, and supporting demand creation by advertising the revalorization of forgotten foods.
In a panel discussion, Vanessa Rodríguez Osuna, UN Environment Programme Finance Initiative, underscored that “nature” is not just a solution, but rather the foundation for all economies. She stressed that we depend on the diversity of living things to provide everything we need, pointing out, for instance, that more than 75% of global crops rely on pollination. Osuna underlined that crop diversity, which helps farmers identify and prioritize drought- or flood-resistant varieties, is key for food systems resilience to extreme events.
Alejandro Argumedo, Coordinator, International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples, related a memory from his childhood: waking up to the aroma of a beautiful dish of different shapes and colors of potatoes, mixed with herbs, cooked by his grandmother. He underlined the need to connect food to its source, highlighting “nothing will change until we change our values and go back to the roots.” Argumedo emphasized that Indigenous Peoples and local communities have accumulated thousands of years of knowledge and expertise on how to ensure food system diversity and resilience. Underlining the importance of collaboration, he urged abandoning the artificial dichotomy between in situ and ex situ conservation, noting the importance of both.
Tarifa Ajeif AlZaabi, Director General, International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, stressed the importance of social inclusion, pointing out that the discussion should not just be about innovation and science, but also about the stakeholders, their stories, and connections. She said her organization, for instance, brings people together through cooking lessons.
Neil Watkins, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke on risks associated with the lack of species diversity in global banana production. He explained the Cavendish variants account for 60% of global banana production, and all of them are genetically identical clones. He underlined that, due to lack of genetic diversity, they are at higher risk of being wiped out by pests and diseases. Watkins outlined ways to address this through innovation in crop breeding that includes wild banana relatives.
Panelists provided key takeaways, including on: collaboration and eradicating silos; overcoming greed and focus on profits by achieving a change in value systems; building on each other’s strengths; and making a case for investing in crop diversity and supporting genebanks.
Selassie Atadika, Founder, Midunu Institute, presented on “crop diversity as deliciousness,” in a celebration of food, culinary, and cultural heritage. She pointed to a range of factors that contribute to shaping diets, including cultural taboos, ceremonial rites, and preservation techniques, and identified important practices, such as the reliance on wild and foraged foods, no-waste cooking, and communal dining. Underscoring the effects of trade imbalances which foster the reliance on imported foods, she lamented the erosion of heritage associated with the disappearance of traditional ingredients and meals. Atadika introduced the Midunu Chocolates, which she created as a way to revitalize forgotten food heritage by creating mainstream demand for spices and other ingredients, noting the chocolates not only use local ingredients but are also produced locally in her home country Ghana.
From Seeds to Supper: The Role of Seed Banks in Transforming our Agri-Food Systems
Agnes Kalibata, President, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, via video message, emphasized conserving traditional crop varieties and protecting traditional knowledge. She called for: functional genebanks at national and regional levels to reduce the risk of genetic erosion; more investment in research to support the development of new varieties; and frameworks to support farmers in their transition towards climate-resilient crops. She recalled that the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit recognized the fragility and dysfunctionality of our food systems.
Marco Wopereis, Director General, World Vegetable Center (WorldVeg), highlighted that seed banks are “treasure boxes” of forgotten crops and hidden traits that serve to build resilience to various challenges. He noted that approximately one-quarter of the around 1,100 recognized vegetables worldwide is still not conserved in seed banks, adding that many wild vegetable species are threatened and poorly conserved in seed banks. He noted that WorldVeg holds the world’s largest vegetable collection and is actively connecting with farmers and seed companies around the world to respond to their needs. He underscored that the operation of a seed bank is a complex undertaking, noting operating WorldVeg costs USD1.4 million per year.
Juan Lucas Restrepo, CGIAR, discussed initiatives aimed at: enhancing yields; increasing resilience to pests, diseases, drought, and salinity; improving nutritional characteristics; and identifying anti-methanogenic feedstocks to reduce methane emissions from cattle. He said that ex situ and in situ conservation need to go hand-in-hand, underscoring the repatriation of collections to benefit local communities. He urged progress on: increasing understanding of material conserved at national level; improving coordination between the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, ITPGRFA, Crop Trust, CGIAR, and national agricultural research and extension systems; and ensuring benefit sharing from the use of digital sequence information.
In a panel discussion, Asta Maya Tamang, Bhutan National Biodiversity Centre, noted her country’s genebank contains 3,500 samples from 46 crop species. She outlined users of the bank’s collection include research and development centers, universities, farmers, and farmer cooperatives. As a success story, she described the genebank’s contribution to a revival of the production of buckwheat, which was once a staple food but was gradually dying out. She said her organization supported farmers in developing a variety of buckwheat products, thereby creating an increasing demand for buckwheat, noting that this has helped revive “crop, culture, and cuisine.”
Daniel Kotey, Acting Director, Ghanaian Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute, reiterated that genebanks are not museums and must connect to users, which means they must be relevant to farmers. He described the implementation of Ghana’s genebank quality management process, which he said has supported the delivery of value to germplasm users, especially small-holder farmers. He highlighted that the collection in the gene bank is diverse and has a significant value for biodiversity conservation and addressing climate change, among other benefits.
Susan McCouch, Cornell University, presented on the vision of diversified agri-food systems that provide resilience against climate change, nutritional deficiencies, and insecure livelihoods. She underscored that seeds and crop varieties are not only agricultural inputs, but also carry cultural, social, and political meaning in traditional agricultural systems. McCouch noted a tension between conservation and use, and underlined that genebanks not only collect and conserve crop diversity, but also “give back.” She also called for strengthening the relationship between formal and informal seed sectors and urged establishing a pipeline for innovation.
Karen Mapusa, Pacific Community, highlighted that climate change impacts, such as typhoons, threaten Pacific genebanks, making the creation of safety duplicates a high priority for the region. She lamented the loss of traditional knowledge on food and medicinal plants, noting the potential for genebanks to address this, along with work on data management. She highlighted that many island nations suffer from a crisis of non-communicable diseases related to the triple burden of malnutrition, undernourishment, and over-nutrition. She called for increased reactivity to respond to farmers’ needs, especially after disasters, and underscored the importance of international cooperation to overcome human capacity constraints. She expressed hope that the Summit will help seed banks “move from museums to the farm and the plate.”
Catherine Hazel Aguilar, Leibniz Institute for Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research, highlighted that many genebanks suffer from limited institutional support and have only access to basic equipment. She called for better resourcing to ensure genebanks move beyond “existing and persisting” as isolated units, to becoming fully integrated into the broader landscape of food systems transformation. She urged genebank managers to nudge policymakers to develop strategies to protect plant genetic resources and called for cooperation with private seed companies, based on mutual trust. She also emphasized that citizen science can help foster a sense of collective ownership of crop diversity.
Lise Lykke Steffensen, Executive Director, the Nordic Genetic Resources Center, noted that genebanks widely differ in their current functions, with some serving as seed storage, others as seed distribution centers, and some as active research centers. She encouraged genebank managers to reflect on their desired role and what it would take to fulfill it. She shared her dream of a genebank with long-term funding aligned with the timeline for developing new varieties, which conducts innovative research on genomics and phenomics, and ensures responsiveness to requests. She emphasized the need for capacity building on how to store genomic data and for awareness raising among the general public.
Anthony Okere, Acting Director, Nigerian National Centre for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, emphasized the need for capacity building to empower seed banks to serve as active providers of material and to support food security. He emphasized strengthened cooperation among genebanks as an opportunity to further improve crop diversity.
From Talk to Action: Empowering Seed Banks for Sustainable, Resilient, and Healthy Agri-Food Systems
In a video message, David Cooper, Acting Executive Secretary, CBD, underlined that the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity is fundamental for addressing many of the current global challenges such as hunger, malnutrition, and environmental degradation. He outlined the Global Biodiversity Framework’s ambitious plans to halt and reverse biodiversity loss, including loss of genetic diversity, and underscored the importance of both in situ and ex situ conservation.
Wenche Westberg, State Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Norway, underscored that crop diversity is key to strengthening the sustainability of food systems. She highlighted the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is owned by Norway and managed in partnership between Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, and the Crop Trust, and noted many crops have yet to be safeguarded in the vault. Westberg also stressed that crop diversity needs to be saved and maintained outside of the freezers, by being systematically used by farmers and local communities. Responding to a question about Norway’s efforts to translate the Global Biodiversity Framework into national planning, Westberg described her government’s plan to update its National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan by October 2024, and present this as a white paper to the Norwegian Parliament.
In a panel discussion, Michael Keller, Secretary General, International Seed Federation, underlined a symbiotic relationship between the private sector and genebanks, with genebanks as starting points for plant genetic resources to be used in breeding programmes. He stressed that genetic resources are key to planned breeding. Noting that 80% of planned breeding starts with genetic resources used from commercial varieties, he underscored other types of materials are needed to cope with current challenges.
Francisca Azevedo, independent consultant, underlined that agriculture in Mexico takes place under diverse environmental conditions, and that small-scale farmers not only produce food but may also contribute to breeding. She acknowledged the importance of genebanks, but underscored the need for in situ conservation and small-scale traditional agriculture. Azevedo urged ensuring that small-scale farmers are not only research participants but also development partners and benefit from associated gains.
Michael Windfuhr, Deputy Director, German Institute for Human Rights, emphasized that the realization of the human right to adequate food requires functioning institutions that are responsive to the needs of rural communities. He noted a lack of knowledge among farmers about access modalities to seed banks, noting agricultural extension services could address this. He called for ensuring farmers benefit from their contributions to the ITPGRFA’s Multilateral System of Access and Benefit-sharing.
Éliane Ubalijoro, Chief Executive Officer, Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry, drew attention to the importance of trees in food systems, pointing to olive-, nut- and fruit-bearing trees, and highlighted the role of not just pollinators, but also long-distance tree seed disbursers such as elephants and hornbills. She underscored that monoculture tree plantations are more at risk of forest fires and emphasized assisted tree migration as a climate adaptation strategy. She further called for including medicinal tree species in genebanks.
Seed Banks: The Last Line of Defense for Global Food and Nutrition Security
At the margins of the Summit, speakers held a press conference to brief the media on the Summit’s key messages. Stefan Schmitz, Executive Director, Crop Trust, highlighted that agricultural industrialization has led to a shrinking of crop diversity in the field, and underscored the need to maintain and restore crop diversity in order to strengthen resilience to changing environmental conditions. He said this calls for increased attention to soil and ecosystem health.
Selassie Atadika emphasized that bringing back forgotten crop varieties sometimes requires revitalizing old growing techniques, and urged preserving local food heritages for future generations. She called for attention to consumer markets to support such a transformation.
Zakaria Kehel, International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, said seed banks not only serve to preserve seeds but also take an active role in research and development of new varieties and support small-scale farmers in diversifying their income streams and diets.
Lise Lykke Steffensen highlighted the importance of safety backups and pointed to international collaborative efforts to support the Ukrainian seed bank, which holds the tenth largest collection in the world.
In the ensuing discussion, Steffensen lamented the lack of long-term funding to support the work of seed banks and called upon governments to live up to their responsibility regarding the conservation of plant genetic diversity and associated information. Atadika underscored the push towards export-oriented agriculture as an impediment to the preservation of crop diversity. Kehel emphasized the need for progress on gene sequencing and evaluating different varieties’ resistance to stressors such as droughts. Schmitz expressed hope for the Summit to kick off a global seed bank partnership, with follow-up events to foster mutual learning and advance monitoring.
Uli Westphal, visual artist, described his work photographing unusual crops, and lamented that globally, around one-third of food production is wasted due to absurd marketing standards, including cosmetic ones. He described some of his other projects, all aimed at raising awareness of the existence, beauty, and diversity of crops. He concluded that crop diversity should remain “like air or water: a common good freely accessible to all.”
Peter Crane, President, Oak Spring Garden Foundation, acknowledged that the world is facing several global interconnected crises, and stressed that in addressing short-term problems, we must not lose sight of the long-term ones such as the climate crisis. He recalled some of the key messages coming out of this Summit, including that:
- small-scale farmers and producers, many of whom are women, are crucial for ensuring crop diversity;
- in ensuring species diversity for base crops, we should also attend to cultural diversity;
- genebanks are not museums, but provide an important service in facilitating withdrawals from their collections; and
- genebanks need sustainable, rather than project-level, funding.
Stefan Schmitz, Executive Director, Crop Trust, expressed hope that the Summit, which brought together stakeholders from around the world, managed to contribute to raising the political profile of plant genetic resources and will be the starting point for closer collaboration in the context of a global seed bank partnership.
Kent Nnadozie, Secretary, ITPGRFA, underscored that crop diversity is key for food system resilience and urged adopting a systems approach that takes into account soil health and climate change. Echoing Schmitz, he said the Summit “planted the seed” towards enhanced cooperation in addressing current and future challenges, and recalled the importance of sustained funding.
Yasmina El Bahloul, ITPGRFA Governing Body Chair, and Catherine Bertini, Crop Trust Executive Board Chair, pointed to a communiqué capturing key messages from the Summit. They highlighted, among other things: the vital role of genebanks and of strategic partnerships and division of labor between them; and the need to transform agri-food systems before climate tipping points are reached and some crops are lost forever. They said the communiqué will serve to inform discussions, including at the tenth session of the ITPGRFA Governing Body and the UNFCCC’s COP 28.
The Summit concluded around 6:15 pm.