Associate Professor, Division of Biological Control, University of California, Berkeley
Graduate Research Assistant, Department of Vegetable Crops, University of California, Davis, and L.H.Bailey Hortorium, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
Today, the foundation and health of agriculture in industrial countries largely depend on their access to the rich crop genetic diversity found in Third-World countries. Yet the very same germplasm resources most sought after for their potential applications in biotechnology are constantly threatened by the spread of modern agriculture. On the one hand, the adoption of high-yielding, uniform cultivars over broad areas has resulted in the abandonment of genetically variable, indigenous varieties by subsistence farmers (Frankel and Hawkes, 1975; Harlan, 1975). The new varieties are often less dependable than the varieties they have replaced when grown under traditional agricultural management (Barlett, 1980). On the other hand, the planting of vast areas with monocultures of genetically uniform cultivars makes agricultural productivity extremely vulnerable to yield-limiting factors, as illustrated by the southern corn leaf blight epidemic in the United States in 1969–1970 (Adams et al., 1971). Agroecosystems established far from centers of origin tend to have simpler genetic defenses against pathogens and insect pests, rendering crops more vulnerable to epidemic attack—a situation that rarely occurs in an unmodified traditional agroecosystem (Segal et al., 1980).
Concern for this rapid loss of genetic resources and crop vulnerability consolidated at the international level about 13 years ago with the establishment of the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), which coordinates a global network of gene banks to provide plant breeders with the genetic resources