Plant biodiversity and genetic resources

Commercial crops have an extremely narrow genetic base, which makes them vulnerable to environmental threats. The induced mutation technique is becoming increasingly important to bring about heritable changes in plants and offer new genetic varieties to plant breeders.

The genetic diversity of plants is among the earth’s most important resources for food and agriculture. Thousands of crop species and their wild relatives make up the genetic variability the world’s food production depends on. For thousands of years, people have used, developed and relied on plant genetic resources for food and agricultural production.

However, genetic resources are being lost at an increasingly alarming rate. With the erosion of these resources, mankind loses the potential to adapt to new socio-economic and environmental conditions.

The technique of generating mutations among plants by irradiating their seeds, or induced mutagenesis, is almost a century old. It is a proven, safe, robust and cost-effective plant breeding strategy, and the crop varieties it generates contribute substantially to global food and nutritional security.

Together with the FAO, the IAEA assists Member States in developing and adopting nuclear-based technologies, such as the induced mutation technique, to optimise plant biodiversity and genetic resources that support the intensification of crop production and the preservation of natural resources.

Enlarging the genetic base through mutation breeding

Maintaining biodiversity is a global responsibility. Aware of the importance of biodiversity for food and agriculture, the FAO established the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 1983. The Commission is a permanent forum where governments discuss and negotiate how to ensure that genetic resources for food and agriculture are preserved and used in a sustainable manner, and that present and future generations have a fair and equitable share of their benefits.

Another powerful tool is the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, adopted in 2001. The Treaty is a comprehensive international agreement that aims at guaranteeing food security through the conservation, exchange and sustainable use of the world's plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. To fully harness its potential, the most appropriate scientific and technological tools need to be applied to breed new plant varieties.

Induced mutagenesis contributes to unleashing this potential and helps plant breeders obtain the raw materials needed to generate the desired “smart” crop varieties. The technique generates massive numbers of putative (commonly accepted) mutants that increase biodiversity. The genetic variation that is obtained from the biodiversity within plants’ genetic resources helps address many problems in plant breeding. The basic aims of plant breeding are to improve crop varieties in terms of yield, quality, adaptability to climate change and biotic (living) and abiotic (non-living) stress factors in the ecosystem.