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Introduction to Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

Genetic resources can be described as any material of plant, animal, microbial or other origin containing functional units of heredity of actual or potential use. In animals it can refer to the animal itself, semen, ova, embryos, or DNA. In plants it can refer to the plant itself, seeds, vegetative material or DNA. Genetic resources for food and agriculture are the biological basis of world food security and, directly or indirectly, support the lives and livelihoods of every person on Earth. Genetic resources are the raw materials used in the production of new cultivars and breeds, and form a reservoir of genetic adaptability, that provide a buffer against potentially harmful environmental and economic changes. Erosion of these valuable and unique resources poses a severe threat to the world's food security in the longer term.

The ever-increasing demands being made on the earth's natural and cultivated resources to feed and sustain human life have led to a serious depletion in the diversity of plant and animal life forms on the planet. Many natural and semi-natural habitats have either been altered significantly or in some cases destroyed due to intensive cultivation practices. Allied to this, modern food production systems by their nature have led to the use of a small number of uniform and often closely related high producing breeds and species of animals and varieties of crops. This erosion in the diversity of plant and animal life forms has been viewed by society with increasing alarm for some time throughout the world.

Ireland's international obligations in genetic resources arise as it is one of 168 countries globally that are signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). A key element of the Convention provides for the preservation and sustainable use of the earth's biological resources to guarantee food security for present and future generations.  Overall responsibility for implementation of the Convention in Ireland rests with the Department of the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and the Marine, however, has direct responsibility for the coordination and promotion of measures for the conservation and utilisation of genetic resources for food and agriculture. In this task, the Department is aided and advised by an Advisory Committee on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

A number of organisations including State bodies, Universities, Teagasc and Non-Governmental Organisations are involved in various conservation activities. However, the management and use of genetic resources in Ireland are in the hands of farmers, breeders' organisations and the commercial industry.

Cooperation is crucial for the better management and conservation of genetic resources. Efforts must be made to enable the development and use of a wider array of genetic resources in commercial agriculture. The effective use of indigenous genetic resources is an essential component of conservation and is perhaps the most cost effective method of conservation. It must also be a key objective of the national breeding strategies and programmes for the different plant and animal species involved.