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Genetic resources

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Animals, plants, micro-organisms and invertebrates which are used for Food, Agriculture and Forestry are called Genetic Resources. Together with the components which fulfill agri-ecological functions they are grouped under the concept Agrobiodiversity.


Genetic resources for Food, Agriculture and Forestry include both wild species and domesticated forms. Reflecting the main areas of use – crop production, animal husbandry, forestry, fisheries and micro-organisms – they are grouped in

  • Plant genetic resources

  • Animal genetic resources

  • Forest genetic resources

  • Aquatic genetic resources and

  • Genetic resources of micro-organisms and invertebrates


Conservation strategies

A strategy for the conservation of genetic resources includes the application of in situ/on farm measures and ex situ methods. These are complementary options to preserve the diversity of genetic resources for food and agriculture.

Since the 1970s efforts have been made to mitigate the loss of variability of plant genetic resouces (PGR) by establishing in ex situ collections Genebanks in Europe maintain approximately one third of the world's ex situ crop germplasm collections. The CBD fostered the in situ conservation of species. Article 2 specifically recognizes domesticated and cultivated species as an important component of global biological diversity.


Plant genetic resources

Around 10 000 plant species have been used for human food since the origin of agriculture. Today, only about 150 plant species make up the diets of the majority of the world's population. Of these, just 12 species provide over 70 percent of food, while four – rice, maize, wheat and potatoes – make up over 50 percent of the food supply and only 30 crops provide 90 percent of the world's calorie intake.

Europe has a large responsibility for plant genetic resources, both within the region and in respect to other parts of the world. European countries and institutions have the tradition and very often also advanced technologies needed for ensuring the sustainable use and conservation of plant genetic resources in agriculture and forestry. Genebanks in Europe maintain approximately one third of the world's ex situ crop germplasm collections.


Crop wild relatives (CWR) are species closely related to crops (including crop progenitors) and are defined by their potential ability to contribute beneficial traits to crops, such as pest or disease resistance, yield improvement or stability.


Crop wild relatives have been used to improve the quality and yield of our crops since thousands of years. They helped to improve resistance against pests and diseases and to improve crop tolerance to stressful abiotic conditions such as drought. They have also raised the nutritional contents of crops, including protein in durum wheat, calcium in potato, and Provitamin A in tomato.

According to FAOs second State of the World PGRFA report the interest in and awareness of the importance of conserving CWR, both ex situ and in situ, and its use in crop improvement have increased substantially.

From 50 000–60 000 CWR worldwide (same genus as crop) 700 CWR are considered as highest priority from a global perspective, being the species that comprise the primary and secondary genepools of the world’s most important food crops.

A catalogue of CWR for the Euro/Mediterranean region with 25 000 species has been created by the PGR-Forum. As a first step towards the creation of a European inventory of in situ CWR populations, the ECPGR has called for focal points to be appointed with responsibility for developing national in situ inventories.

Europe is an important centre for crop wild relative diversity. Major crops such as oats (Avena sativa), sugar beet (Beta vulgaris), apple (Malus domestica), annual meadow grass (Festuca pratensis), perennial rye grass (Lolium perenne) and white clover (Trifolium repens), have wild relatives in Europe.  Many minor crops have also been developed and domesticated in the region; such as arnica (Arnica montana), asparagus (Asparagus officinalis), lettuce (Lactuca sativa), sage (Salvia officinalis), raspberries and blackberries (Rubus sp.), mints (Mentha sp.) and chives (Allium sp.) (Maxted 2008, PGR-Forum, 2005).


Further reading: 

  • EU Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) Report:
    a) Community report on targets A2.1 and A5.2
    b) Country profiles on targets A2.1 and A5.2 
Selected links:

The European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources (ECPGR)

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resouces for Food and Agriculture

The State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

The Crop Wild Relative Specialist Group (CWRSG)

Botanical Gardens Europe

European Forest Genetic Resources Programme (EUFORGEN)

European Regional Focal Point for Animal Genetic Resources (ERFP)

The State of the World’s Animal Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

EC Genetic Resources in Agriculture