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Networking, partnerships and tools to enhance in situ conservation of European plant genetic resources

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Farmers Pride (Networking, partnerships and tools to enhance in situ conservation of European plant genetic resources)

Reporting period: 2017-11-01 to 2019-04-30

Agricultural plant diversity—the diversity of crops, their varieties, and wild relatives—is the bedrock of resilient agriculture and critical for the sustainability of our food production systems. Currently, the food, nutrition and economic security of European society is dependent on a limited number of crops that are vulnerable to the increasingly extreme and uncertain impacts of climate change. Wild relatives of crops and locally adapted cultivated varieties (landraces) are rich sources of diversity for the development of improved crop varieties resilient to these impacts, and landraces themselves are important for their resilience and for the distinctive qualities of the crop produce. Worldwide, nations have acknowledged the imperative to conserve these resources through specific legislative instruments which emphasize the need for conservation in situ (on-site) to maintain a wide range of diversity and evolutionary change, as well as acknowledge the service provided by farmers and other growers to society through the cultivation of landraces. Consequently, much research has been undertaken during the last two decades to build knowledge about the extent of agricultural plant diversity that exists, and how to plan for and undertake conservation actions. Further, there have been many initiatives to create networks of people involved in the conservation of agricultural plant diversity. Building on this knowledge and existing structures, the Farmer’s Pride project is establishing a fledgling Europe-wide network for in situ conservation and sustainable use of agricultural plant diversity as the foundation of a permanent European network of conservation sites and stakeholders, to safeguard the future of agriculture, and food, nutrition and economic security in the region.
"In the first phase, the project developed, published and promoted a range of surveys to gather information from agricultural plant diversity stakeholders in the region. This included an online survey to improve our understanding of the roles and interests of the people and organizations involved or with an interest in the in situ conservation and sustainable use of agricultural plant diversity, as well as to begin to build the European network of stakeholders. Other survey instruments were used to gather information on specific conservation activities and initiatives, as well as to identify traits important to meet future agricultural and market needs. Importantly, all surveys were made available in different European languages, which proved to be important for the success rate.

A review of existing networks for agricultural plant diversity conservation revealed that they are very diverse in many aspects, including the stakeholders involved, governance, the materials conserved, conservation practices, and funding. Key outcomes of a series of workshops with a focus on enhancing national seed networks include the need to find ways of making them more self-sustainable and financially independent, and the requirement to establish a secretariat to coordinate activities.

First steps to enhance access to and use of agricultural plant diversity conserved in situ were taken, involving bilateral meetings with nature protection organizations and the development of a prototype website giving an overview of the diversity available in situ. Steps have also been taken to improve the integration of in situ and ex situ conservation through a series of workshops, meetings and interviews, and the establishment of a network of growers to multiply seeds conserved ex situ.

Other activities initiated include the development of population management guidelines for in situ agricultural plant diversity, as well as criteria for the inclusion of sites and populations in the European Network. The management of information associated with the conservation and sustainable use of agricultural plant diversity in situ is also a critical component of the project.

Dissemination and advocacy has involved the establishment of a project website, Twitter account (@PGRInSitu), hashtag (#EUfarmerspride), and factsheet, and partners have promoted the project at a number of external conferences, workshops, meetings and open days. Issue 4 of the newsletter Landraces was published and widely disseminated. Other publications include a range of journal and newsletter articles.

In October 2018, Farmer’s Pride convened the first of three large stakeholder workshops involving 56 participants who discussed and developed the concept of the European Network. Planning has also begun for the final dissemination conference, to be held in Portugal in October 2020.
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All of the activities described above, and the main results achieved so far, have taken the community of European stakeholders involved in the conservation of agricultural plant diversity beyond the state of the art. For example, a critical aspect of successful conservation and sustainable use of agricultural plant diversity is the integration of the in situ and ex situ conservation communities. This is partly to ensure that plant material conserved in situ is regularly collected and backed up in ex situ collections as an insurance for potential loss of diversity in situ due to unforeseen events, and partly to provide access to material for characterization, evaluation, and pre-breeding—and subsequently for use in crop improvement programmes. Eventually, the aim is to put in place mechanisms for users of agricultural plant diversity to gain access to material directly from in situ conserved populations. This is a complex issue to resolve but steps have already been made to towards this aim and by the end of the project we expect to have a clear understanding of the required procedures and case studies demonstrating how they can be achieved.

In the first phase of the project, the Farmer’s Pride consortium has also gained a greater understanding of the stakeholders involved or with an interest in the in situ conservation and sustainable use of agricultural plant diversity, and of existing local, national and regional networks from which lessons can be learnt for the establishment of the European Network, and that can be enhanced by joining forces as one integrated network for agricultural plant diversity conservation and sustainable use across the region. The goal of establishing the Network within a three year project is ambitious, but the consortium is confident that the foundations can be laid with the designation of a number of sites and populations, as well as an initial list of network stakeholders who will become members of the Network. This achievement will be a step change in agricultural plant diversity conservation and will be recognized as a model for other world regions.

Fundamental to the success of the Network beyond the end of the project will be a clear roadmap for Network governance and funding. Critically, to ensure the sustainability of the Network, the Farmer’s Pride consortium is advocating for the development of a new EU directive for conservation and sustainable use of agricultural plant diversity. This is needed because current EU legislation does not provide a framework for the implementation of measures focused on sustaining and making available agricultural plant diversity—diversity that is essential for resilient agriculture, and the food, nutrition and economic security of European society.
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