Leaders and representatives from more than 195 countries have taken a bold step by adopting the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate agreement when they gathered in Paris in December as part of COP 21 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. As important as this development is, it will now be up to our governments, research institutions, the private sector, civil society and of course us as ordinary citizens, to take effective action to not only mitigate climate change but also adapt to the climatic changes that will continue to impact our lives for many years to come.

Much of the climate change debate thus far has focused on the energy sector, which produces about 35% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and measures such as shifting energy production away from polluting fuels like coal to renewable technologies such as wind and solar. Deforestation has also been a key negotiation point, with countries pledging billions of dollars to save forests through the U.N. program REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).

‘Adaptation to climate change’ has also featured in the discussions – though with much less prominence and usually with an exclusive focus on the transfer of “adaptation funding” from wealthier, developed countries to vulnerable developing countries. One major contributor to climate change adaptation has been conspicuously missing from past debates: genetic resources.

The genetic resources that constitute the base of food and agriculture include the many varieties of animals, plants and micro-organisms that support agricultural production systems and produce food and other agricultural products. The genetic variability contained within this biodiversity represents the key to breeding new crop varieties and livestock breeds that are more adaptive and resilient. As Maria Helena Semedo stated recently, on the occasion of the release of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Voluntary Guidelines to Support the Integration of Genetic Diversity into National Climate Change Adaptation Planning:

“Genetic resources for food and agriculture will have to contribute greatly to our efforts to cope with climate change. We need to act now to reduce the risk that the scale and speed of climate change will surpass our ability to identify, select, reproduce and – eventually – use these resources in the field.”

In the past, crop diversity and other forms of genetic resources have been essential in driving agricultural productivity growth, as during the Green Revolution, when breeding efforts utilizing agricultural biodiversity led to large gains in yield potential in rice and other crops. Now, with the world population growing towards 9 billion and climate change threatening to reduce the yields of some staple crops by up to 25 percent by 2050, it is even more essential that these resources are conserved and mobilized to increase the productivity and resilience of agriculture.

The realization that genetic resources and in particular the wild relatives of our crops, have a key role to play in climate change adaptation has led to the development of our project on these wild species. The Project title “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives” encapsulate this well. CWR live in habitats as varied as deserts, swamps, and rainforests and possess a wide range of useful genetic traits such as drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, and high yields. You can find out more examples of how CWRs can be used to adapt our cropping systems to climate change here. The pre-breeding efforts supported under this Project all focus on climate change adaptation, whilst the collecting projects focus on conserving CWR diversity, much of which is threatened in the wild by a changing climate as well. You can explore our interactive Partners map to find out more about the specific pre-breeding projects that are under way already.

Initiatives on climate change adaptation, such as this Project, are urgently needed to help adapt the world and in particular our food systems to the changing climatic conditions, which already have become a reality in many parts of the world.