“Evolution does not stand still”

To ensure food security for humankind, it is important to protect plant genetic resources and to use them in a manner that is economically sustainable. InWEnt is supporting the necessary rethink, as Erich Mies from InWEnt explains.

[ Interview with Erich Mies ]

Which political fields and levels of administration have an influence on biodiversity?
Policymaking matters in fields like environment, agriculture, forestry, energy and infrastructure. In Germany, the Ministries of the Environment, Agriculture and Consumer Affairs as well as the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, on behalf of which InWEnt works, are relevant at the national level. At the state level, there are also ministries of the environment and agriculture. Moreover, there are district-level administrations and local governments, which make a difference because they implement policies, regulations and guidelines, for instance in agriculture and forestry – and they monitor compliance with rules. They have a direct bearing on whether economic activity diminishes biodiversity or not.

Germany is not a country of great biodiversity. Rather, as in other industrialised nations, a lot of damage was done to the environment during our industrial history. Do we really serve as model?
For people from developing countries, both positive and negative experiences of industrialised countries can provide insights into how to avoid mistakes in the course of national development. Those who participate in our programmes often note that environmental protection is part of everyday life in Germany– including concern for biodiversity. In many developing countries, officials in capital cities make grand statements, but that hardly has consequences at the lower administrative levels or for the people in general. Things are different in Germany, because government action, even at the village level, reflects official policies drafted in Berlin and the capitals of the Länder.

That sounds very positive.
We don’t hush up our deficiencies either – take, for instance, fields with vast monocultures without any hedges or even bushes. Moreover, we regularly address the issue landscapes that were devastated by surface mining in the Leipzig area. Surface mining is a massive intervention in landscapes and biotopes. At the same time, however, we can show that Germans are serious about re-naturation, and that this approach works if the local communities are involved early on, through local clubs and associations, for example. People from the countries where environmental devastation is taking place today find these examples encouraging.

What instruments serve to protect biodiversity worldwide?
Internationally, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the most important political instrument. Germany signed the CBD and drafted a biodiversity strategy to protect and utilise biodiversity. At the European level, programmes such as Natura 2000 or the Directive "Flora-Fauna-Habitat" help to conserve biodiversity. Direct and indirect financial support mechanisms can also make sense, for instance, paying farmers bonuses for extensive forms of farming. The certification of forests, organic farming and the use of eco and fair-trade seals also contribute to the protection and sustainable use of biodiversity.

Many think of nature parks when they hear the word “biodiversity”, but that is too narrow an understanding, isn’t it?
Yes it is, even though nature parks make important contributions – just consider rainforests and coral reefs with particularly diverse biology. But I’m not saying that nature reserves don’t make sense in Europe. They do. The diversity in wetlands, for example, is often great. Nevertheless, nature parks will never suffice to protect biodiversity. We also have to protect the diversity of landscapes and of all the forms of life they harbour. Moreover, the diversity within an animal or plant species – its gene pool – matters too.

There are gene banks for that purpose, however.
That’s right, and they help to conserve genetic diversity. However, it is not enough to store seeds and germ cells in a gene bank because the natural environment is constantly developing; evolution does not stand still. But the seeds stored in gene banks are removed from evolution, so even though the genetic information is accurately stored, specific properties of the variety concerned may be lost. It is essential to conserve biodiversity in mature organisms in their normal environment too.

How important is agricultural biodiversity?
The biodiversity of agricultural crops will play a crucial role in food security for the world’s population in future. This is due in part to population growth and in part to the fact that less and less land is available for farms and ranches. In recent years, moreover, high-tech approaches did not deliver the results that had been hoped for. On top of all this, we have to prepare for crop losses because of climate change. All summed up, this means that humanity needs the largest possible pool of genetic information to cultivate the varieties that will allow us to rise to these tremendous challenges.

Laypeople often struggle to understand why the loss of diversity is so disturbing. Do you have an explanation?
Globally, many domestic animal breeds and native varieties of grains have disappeared over the last 50 years. This happened in part because an aggressive agro-industry promoted the introduction of high-yielding varieties. When farming began about 10,000 years ago, around 7000 plant species were used for human food. Today, however, 95 % of people’s food energy is covered by just 30 plant species. Wheat, rice and corn alone make up more than 50 % and these three species take up 70 % of all areas used for agriculture worldwide. This ratio is risky, because diseases or weather extremes can lead to massive crop failures of any single variety. The risk is spread much wider when many farmers cultivate many different crops.

A rethink has been on the agenda ever since the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, at which the foundations for the CBD, the Framework Convention on Climate Change and other agreements relating to the environment and development were laid.
Yes, but unfortunately free-market liberalism proved much stronger than the spirit of Rio. It seems that things have only begun to change somewhat again after Nicholas Stern’s report on the consequences of climate change in 2006. We are running out of time, however. Every day, 50 to 100 species are lost for good, and so is their business potential. Consider medicines from tropical plants! It is positive, however, that many people are reconsidering the value of local production and local marketing.

So what do you do to bring about change?
From 1995 to 2008, we ran training courses on the protection and utilisation of plant genetic resources in cooperation with the Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben. Around 150 experts from Latin America, Africa and Asia took part in these one-year programmes in Germany. All of them brought along a specific research question from their country and employer. Studying that issue, they came in touch with other institutions beyond InWEnt and IPK in Europe, and some of the contacts are still proving useful today. One research topic was about documenting genetic data of banana varieties in Burundi, and partners from Laos wanted to improve rice yields, for instance.

Are you satisfied with the results?
In view of the dimensions of this global problem, satisfaction is the wrong term. Much more has to happen than what has been achieved to date. However, I’m not saying I’m not happy about good results, and there are success stories. Thanks to the banana data I just mentioned, recommendations were made to diversify banana cultivation and to improve yield and quality. In Bolivia, thanks to the work by one of our participants, it has been possible to conserve precious genetic information of tubers by means of kryo-preservation technology long-term. This matters very much, because the Andes are the place of origin of the potato, so genetic diversity of potatoes is especially high there. These examples prove that the motto “think globally, act locally” is not just hollow talk.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.