The importance of plant diversity in climate change adaptation: the unique role of ABS

Genetic resources offer a unique approach to climate change mitigation. In Canada, average temperatures over the last sixty years have increased by 1.5 degrees. As a whole, the climate has also become wetter based on trends indicating increased annual average precipitation.


This has impact on agriculture and food security. Plant genetic diversity can assist in combatting climate change because it increases the likelihood that some of the crop species will be able to survive as the conditions change.  Since adaptation relies on broader access to genetic resources, access and benefit sharing (ABS) can play a significant role in assisting researchers, academics and farmers by creating conditions that facilitate and encourage the use of genetic resources.


The Nagoya Protocol and the multilateral system of access and benefit sharing under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) can strengthen our ability to have wider access to genetic resources. As a party to the ITPGRFA, Canadian organizations – both private and public, are entitled to access plant genetic resources of 64 crops and forages deposited by other member states of the multilateral system. This also grants us access to a wide spectrum of private collections. At the same time, it obliges Canada to facilitate access to genetic resources relating to the same 64 crops. However, since Canada is not a party to the Nagoya Protocol, this has legal and economic implications. This can undermine trust and mutual understanding needed to engage in contractual agreements with other parties for the use of genetic resources.


Climate change strategies that recognize the importance of access and benefit sharing of genetic resources are essential. For this, we can look towards similar policies adopted in other countries which more broadly enable farmers and researchers to gain access to plant diversity needed to address climate change. Variation in climate suggests that traditional crop varieties may not be adapted to new changes in climate and new crop varieties will need to be brought in from elsewhere. This will increase the interdependency of nations. As an example, local as well as long distance seed sharing systems would allow farmers to have access to a wide variety of seeds developed under different selective pressures. Regulatory measures that easily facilitate this process are key.


Climate change may bring new opportunities to Canadian farmers as well as new risks. The agricultural sector may benefit from climate change with longer summers and higher temperatures, enabling different types of crops to be grown. However, increased exposure to pests, heat waves and other extreme conditions may bring new risks. As climate change increases our dependence on other countries for their plant genetic resources, our ability to adapt will depend on nationwide policies that enable widespread access to genetic resources.


Photo credit:  Still” by Andrew McCoubrey // licensed under CC BY 2.0


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