Plant genetic resources: the foundation of sustainable agri-food systems

Around 400,000 species of plants populate our planet, and about 10% of them are used by humans for food, fibre, fuel and medicines. The diversity of the traditional and modern crop species and varieties as well as crop wild relatives and other wild plant species that sustain agriculture and food systems, and the genetic material contained in them, are called plant genetic resources (PGR).

They provide the building blocks for breeding crops that are more nutritious, productive and resilient to pests, diseases and environmental changes. Plant genetic resources are under threat due to multiple factors, including climate change, shifts in land use and management practices, and regulation and marketing obstacles. The loss or poor availability of these precious resources jeopardizes the long-term productivity, resilience and sustainability of agri-food systems.

The main paths to safeguarding PGR are ex situ conservation – in facilities called genebanks – and management in their agro-ecosystems and natural habitats (in situ conservation). But conservation is not enough. We need to have comprehensive and standardized information on these resources so they can be used by breeders and researchers. And we need to ensure equitable access and benefit sharing.

Poor status of Europe’s plant genetic resources hampers research and agricultural improvement 

Europe has more than 2 million PGR accessions conserved ex situ in 410 institutes and associated countries. Even more diversity is found in situ in European farmlands and wild habitats, where it contributes significantly to agricultural resilience and climate mitigation. However, the European PGR system is far from perfect. Information on genebank accessions is, at best, fragmentary, while for in situ accessions it is almost non-existent. Many genebanks and other collections lack appropriate resources, capacities, infrastructure and quality controls and in situ/on-farm activities have received short-term and fragmentary support.

As a result of these and other challenges, many genebanks are currently unable to provide to their customers (scientists, breeders, farmers) the services needed in terms of access to the breadth of PGR diversity and associated information and all European countries lack integrated in situ/on-farm activities.

The PRO-GRACE (Promoting a Plant Genetic Resource Community for Europe) project aims to fill these gaps by laying the foundations for a European Research Infrastructure dedicated to the conservation, management and study of European plant genetic resources.