A classical approach to saving life’s variety


The beginning of the tragedy to come wasn’t so clearly understood, but it became more visible as scientists studied the demise of the dinosaurs and came to consider, over the centuries, the reduction of species. The destructive trend is clear and fast encroaching on domesticated plants and wild animals alike, putting some species such as the whales and panda bears on the endangered list and threatening food security.

Consequently the world is losing biodiversity at rates not seen before.

In Nigeria, for instance, the country has lost some 6.1 million hectares or 35.7% of its forest cover since 1990. Worse, Nigeria’s most biodiverse ecosystems—its old-growth forests—are disappearing at an even faster rate. Since 2000, Nigeria has been losing an average of 11% of its primary forests every year, twice as fast as in the 1990s.

Adeniyi Jayeola, a Senior Lecturer in plant systematics, Department of Botany and Microbiology, University of Ibadan, says, “The deterioration we find worldwide today is unprecedented. Unless we act together, and quickly too, we may sooner than later induce a global ecological crisis far beyond the control of any technology. It is a multi-faceted challenge requiring all hands to be on deck.”

Areas visited in Nigeria in particular and the world in general have shown that man has demonstrably failed to accord the environment the respect it deserves, whether this is the air, sea, or land.

Consequently, out of more than 10,000 species in the past people today depend on only 12 species for 80% of all their food.

To stem the loss of biodiversity, in 2002, 10 years after the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 193 nations participating in the treaty had agreed to “achieve by 2010 a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss at the global, regional, and national level as a contribution to poverty alleviation and to the benefit of all life on earth.”

This year, parties are converging to take stock of the journey so far but the general assumption is that more action needs to be taken.


What is biodiversity worth?
As the world prepares to take a retrospect on set targets, we can, however, no longer expect nature to provide us with a free lunch. Efforts to protect natural resources could depend on our putting a price tag on the goods and services they provide us. The United Nations Environment Programme’s 2007 Global Environment Outlook 4 report states that the pollination of crops by honeybees alone is worth US$2−8 billion, and the global herbal medicine market was worth US$43 billion back in 2001.

In addition, the tropical forests provide a whole variety of leaves, fruits, barks, roots, and nuts which form the mainstay of the modern pharmaceutical industry. We depend totally on the variety of life for our food security. The loss of biodiversity therefore presents us with one of the toughest puzzles, and concrete steps are needed to slow down the tide.

Innovative approaches to contain biodiversity loss
Despite the decline in species, which are currently disappearing at 50–100 times the natural rate, a regenerated forest on IITA’s campus in Ibadan has proved that indeed we can restore nature if we so desire. The forest, located on the west bank in IITA, sits on 350 ha of land and was initiated from abandoned farmland.

Forty three years after its establishment, this swathe of securely protected trees stands out as one of the least disturbed patch of forest in Nigeria with floristic characteristics ranking almost at par with a natural forest. The regeneration of the forest has brought appeal from the scientific community as researchers are seeking to uncover and understand the variation in plant species, composition, and structure of a forest regrowing from abandoned farmland and the causes of the variation.

David Okali, Chair, Nigerian Environmental Study/Action Team, who plans to do the study on the IITA forest with other colleagues, says such long-term studies are rare. The results on the rate of growth will be used in calculating directly the rate of carbon storage in the forest.
As the world marks the International Year of Biodiversity, Okali says deliberate efforts to conserve nature are important to stem biodiversity loss, stressing that the reestablishment of the IITA forest presented a good scenario for conservation.

Apart from forest regeneration, Okali says local communities could adopt other initiatives to curtail the loss of biodiversity. These include a return to traditional practices that made it a taboo for people to cut some species of trees or kill sacred animals. Also traditionally regulating hunting practices, and planting and protecting shade-providing fruit trees that adorn the village squares will help.

The success of the regenerated forest at IITA has reinforced the possibility that the opportunity is still within our reach.

Based on this experience, it is clear that the plan by parties to the CBD to create a global network of terrestrial and of marine protected areas can be done if there is the will and the means. How this will happen and funded is a question that all Governments must answer.

Dominique Dumet: Safeguarding agrobiodiversity for the future

Dominique Dumet showing seeds, IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver.
Dominique Dumet showing seeds, IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver.

As the head of IITA’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), Dominique Dumet says she is something between a curator and an administrator. She is involved in conservation (field bank, seed bank, and in vitro bank, which includes cryopreservation for clonal crops), checking inventory, improving processes and workflows, transferring technology, and computerizing the system. In addition, she is involved in recruiting staff and selecting students, germplasm distribution and acquisition, research in plant genetic resources, staff management, research project development and proposal writing, and communication to donors on special projects and about germplasm at IITA during scientific meetings.

She is primarily interested in ex situ conservation and particularly low temperature biology and its application to conservation systems (cryopreservation, sanitation). She has an overview of all domains of germplasm conservation and takes part in various research projects as a collaborator to “add value to the germplasm.” She no longer considers herself a researcher, since she spends most of her time administering the genebank and planning or writing proposal or reports. This International Year of Biodiversity, she explains what GRC plans in support of promoting biodiversity conservation.

Why is biodiversity conservation important? What are your priorities?
Our work is very important. We try to reduce the rate of irreversible loss in the biological diversity that is used in agriculture. All conservation aspects are important, but maybe the conservation sensu stricto comes first if we have to choose as we have a responsibility towards the international community and if we do not work well, all may suffer from our mistakes.

What do you like about working in Africa? In your field of specialization?
I am proud of my job. I hope I contribute to improving the well being of the poorest even if for one iota. I also like being in an environment very different to the one in which I grew up.

In vitro biology and cryopreservation in particular is my field of specialization. Cryopreservation fascinates me as I find it amazing that we can stop the life of a tissue and bring it back again whenever we want to do so. In the frozen stage, all biochemical or biological processes stop—that means that everything stops moving at one moment—and then the magic of life makes it start again so long as physical and chemical parameters are adequate (cooling and thawing temperature, osmotic pressure, light, growth regulators, etc.).

What are your challenges and constraints at work?
The challenges are to maintain the bank at international standards and to keep all the accessions alive. Some constraints include unforeseen requests which make us work under pressure as we still have our routine activities, and new concepts that make our system obsolete.

Collection recording with barcode inventory system, IITA genebank. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.
Collection recording with barcode inventory system, IITA genebank. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.

How do you make the many visitors to GRC understand and appreciate what you are doing?
I give information on the basic concepts of diversity, I explain why we need to conserve it ex situ (out of the natural environment) because of the genetic erosion taking place in the field. Then I explain how we maintain it via seeds or field and in vitro banks, depending on the crop. I also show some examples of diversity, e.g., cowpea seed collection and the variation observed at seed coat. I provide some background on the gaps in the collection based on GIS. And I generally conclude with the International Treaty and access to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA).

Please cite some concrete steps being taken by IITA in biodiversity conservation.
IITA was involved in collecting genetic resources as early as the 1970s so we do have a long history in investing in biodiversity conservation. Many collecting missions have been organized and germplasm has been also acquired from many national collections. The majority of the collections have now been described at agromorphological level, but we are still working on it for maize, for example. We have to characterize any new accessions coming into the bank.

Recently we organized a meeting and survey to develop the cowpea global conservation strategy (Trust-funded). We will have the same strategy developed for yam in 2010 (we are also organizing the Trust-funded expert meeting for this). We are developing more efficient conservation processes such as cryopreservation (this lowers costs but also limits genetic variation during storage). We are fingerprinting the collections of clonal crops to identify germplasm at accession level. This will further guide our collecting missions.

Do you think governments everywhere are serious about biodiversity conservation?
That depends on the country. The richer ones certainly take more serious action—but the poorest (or the less organized) do not have this ‘luxury’. I think all understand the value of biodiversity but as it is a long-term investment to store and as the return on investment is not guaranteed, countries either ignore it or do little about it.

What is the state of agrobiodiversity in Africa?
It is not too bad, compared to other continents—my view on this is that Africa has not yet undergone its Green Revolution (but this opinion may be controversial). However, things may change very quickly, especially now that Africa is seen as a big field where agriculture can take off. Somehow, if we are successful in producing high-yielding crops the adoption rate of such high potential crops may quickly wipe away natural diversity, including (but not only) the landraces (varieties developed by farmers over thousands of years). When the elite genotype replaces older varieties it makes the low performing one obsolete and it increases the rate of planting (as it can generate higher revenue). We have to be vigilant about this since we, as breeders of improved varieties, are partly responsible. There is a conflict of interest between agriculture intensification and conservation of biodiversity.

Do farmers understand the need to conserve seeds or genetic resources for future generations?
In general I would think they are the first one to know about biodiversity but they may not be aware of the amplitude of the “erosion” of species.

Some are already organized in community based genebanks and there are participatory conservation projects within the CGIAR but I do not know enough about the topic. This may be an important complementary approach, but participatory conservation may be difficult to sustain. Besides in community based conservation, the incentive is cultural preference. That means only materials of immediate interest for the farmers are kept.

Bambara groundnut seeds. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.
Bambara groundnut seeds. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.

What is the status of IITA’s seed shipment to Svalbard in Norway?
We had planned on sending more than 20,000 accessions of cowpea and its relatives, bambara groundnut, maize, and soybean in the next few years. Cowpea makes up the majority of the accessions that we are sending. There is a bit of deviation from the original plan but we are more or less on track.

Being the lead person in agrobiodiversity conservation in the Institute, how do you plan to mark the UN International Year of Biodiversity?
We plan to raise awareness about biodiversity among the youth, i.e., high school students and adults in the local community. We will organize quiz contests, tree planting activities, excursions to the IITA forest and to the genebank; produce information materials (videos, flyers, handouts) and set up roaming exhibits and posters.

We also plan to organize seminars and a field or biodiversity/community day for students, farmers, and residents in the local community. We will be coordinating with partners from the University of Ibadan, local schools, Alliance Française, and other organizations, such as the National Center for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, Nigeria Institute of Horticulture, and University of Abeokuta.

What would be your message to colleagues about biodiversity conservation?
Don’t just conserve; educate as well.

Robert Asiedu: Advancing the development of Africa through science

Robert Asiedu. Photo by IITA.
Robert Asiedu. Photo by IITA.

Robert Asiedu is a plant breeder, whose main research interest is on tropical root and tuber crops, especially yam and cassava. From the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) he joined the Root and Tuber Improvement Program of IITA in 1989. His initial research was on cassava and its wild relatives but he spent most of his time on yam research. He has held various leadership or management roles in IITA since 1991. He is Director, Research for Development (R4D), West Africa, and Program Director, Agrobiodiversity and Root and Tuber Systems Programs. In this interview, he talks about research on root and tuber systems, and on agrobiodiversity initiatives.

What inspires you at work?
The potential to advance the development of Africa through agricultural research is a major inspiration for me. IITA offers an excellent platform for achieving this so it is a great pleasure and a privilege to work here.

What do you like about your work as director?
I enjoy the broader opportunities and challenges the position offers to contribute to the development of the subregion through science.

How do you feel about IITA’s work in West Africa and in those areas that you are in charge of as program director?
West Africa is the subregion in which the Institute has worked longest. It is fascinating to reflect on the changes in our modes of operation and interaction with partners in response to the changes in our environment. We have done well so far but there is still a
lot to do.

What is your work philosophy?
To do the best I can every time.

You talk about yam as being a “part of man”. What is so special about yam?
My thoughts on the links between man and yam are based on several fascinating articles by anthropologists and ethnobotanists that I have read on the subject. From West Africa through the Caribbean to the Pacific region, yam is respected and celebrated through major annual thanksgiving festivals in areas where it is cultivated as a staple.

How is progress on IITA’s R4D on roots and tubers/ Agrobiodiversity?
The R4D work on tropical root and tuber crops continues to focus on genetic improvement, crop and pest management, food science and technology, and agroenterprise development.

For yam, improved options for the mass production of affordable and healthy seeds are a major component of our agenda. We have been investigating nutrient use efficiency and the role of mycorrhizal fungi in yam mineral nutrition. The research on food science/technology is focused on understanding the functional properties required in yam tubers and products for household and industrial purposes, development of new competitive products from yam, and screening of germplasm for textural and nutritional attributes.

We continue to improve on our efficiency and effectiveness in conserving the germplasm of banana/plantain, cassava, cowpea, maize, soybean, and yam. Core collections and reference sets are being defined. These collections are characterized using molecular tools and several are being preserved in the form of DNA available for delivery to requestors. Documentation of information has been improved and are now available online. There has been a significant increase in the accessions of clonally propagated crops that are preserved in vitro, in addition to the field banks.

What are the challenges in working on roots and tubers? Agrobiodiversity?
The limited history of research on the tropical root and tuber crops, such as cassava and yam, has left huge gaps in the knowledge of their basic biology. This affects the pace of advancement in research, compared to that of other major staple crops. This is exacerbated by the limited pool of researchers on these crops worldwide. Research funding is very low compared with the importance of these crops in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Agrobiodiversity, the major challenges are the lack of clarity in the interpretation of various international conventions, increasing protectionism in the sharing of crop germplasm, and the apparent lack of international agreements governing the status of collections of nonplant taxa.

What can you advise colleagues?
We should constantly keep our focus on the status, needs, and expectations of those who will benefit from our work.

How could we make the partnership with national programs, donors and policymakers, the private sector, or the growers work better?
Successful partnerships are built on good foundations. Establishing partnerships involve the joint setting and common understanding of the objectives, sharing of responsibilities, and clarity of roles. Periodic and objective assessment of progress is necessary, followed by effective action on the findings. There should be mutual respect and trust in the relationship as well as regular, effective, and open communication. It is important to monitor the changing circumstances of the various partners, including institutional and policy environments, and the needs of some partners for capacity building to play their roles effectively. Good cooperation also depends on fairness in acknowledging the contributions of partners and equity in sharing results, credits, or benefits.

How would you assess IITA’s efforts in agrobiodiversity conservation?
IITA has played and continues to play a key role in conserving germplasm of staple crops, underutilized crop species, and nonplant taxa that are important to African agriculture. Most national programs in sub-Saharan Africa have difficulty in providing the facility and personnel required for long-term conservation of these materials, especially the clonally propagated crops. The duplication of national collections of selected crops in our genebank is a major contribution to the assurance of long-term security. IITA works with a range of partners to continually improve the methods of preservation and characterization of the conserved germplasm.

How can we promote agrobiodiversity conservation among our audiences?
We can increase information dissemination using the print and electronic media and stakeholder consultative workshops to highlight the benefits of sustaining diversity in the food and farming systems and hence in the genetic resources on which these depend. The long-term conservation of nonplant genetic resources, such as beneficial insects and bacteria, requires even more explanation. Taking advantage of our political neutrality and links with relevant international agencies, we can engage in more consultation with policymakers in Africa to allow more freedom in making new collections of germplasm and facilitating international exchange.

Scott Miller: Guardian of life

Scott Miller, Undersecretary for Science, Smithsonian Institution and Chair, Executive Committee, Consortium for the Barcode of Life. photo courtesy of S. Miller.
Scott Miller, Undersecretary for Science, Smithsonian Institution and Chair, Executive Committee, Consortium for the Barcode of Life. photo courtesy of S. Miller.

As Deputy Undersecretary for Science at the Smithsonian Institution (SI), Scott Miller helps oversee the work of SI’s science units, including the National Museum of Natural History, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and others. He is also Chair of the Executive Committee of the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL), and Co-Chair of the US Government Inter-Agency Working Group on Scientific Collections, where he works on science capacity building activities on national and international scales. He maintains an active research program in the systematics and ecology of moths, and the application of that information to conservation and agricultural issues in New Guinea and Africa.

How did you become interested in biodiversity?
I grew up fascinated by nature as a child, and was able to get involved early in insect research projects at a local natural history museum, leading to a career in biodiversity. As I gained a broader perspective, I became especially concerned about helping developing countries to develop the capacity to manage their biodiversity wisely. They lead to my work in Africa.

What will the International Year of Biodiversity achieve?
This is an important opportunity to raise the profile of biodiversity issues. But we have to remember that our reliance on biodiversity is constant, and so must be our attention to understanding and wise management.

Most ecological studies show that biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate worldwide. Could you comment on this?
I agree that biodiversity is being degraded at an alarming rate. While the exact rate can be debated, it is clearly not sustainable.

What is the value of lost biodiversity?
We need much better economic models and data for biodiversity and ecosystem services, but some studies give an idea of the economic importance [Costanza et al. 1997, Pimentel et al. 2000]. One-third of global crop production relies on insect pollinators, valued at some US$ 117 billion. Natural biological control is valued at some $400 billion. Soil arthropods that maintain soil fertility provide trillions of dollars in value to agriculture.

How can Africa reduce the loss of biodiversity?
Action is needed at all levels, from wise government policies, enlightened management of industries that use natural resources, through the empowerment of local people to conserve and benefit from their own natural resources. Wise management requires understanding biodiversity, and valuing conservation to maintain the benefits to society over the long term. The economies of most African countries are based on natural resources, and sustainable development requires wise management. I have always been impressed by the “Working for Water” program in South Africa as a model for integrating landscape scale conservation, invasive species management, economic development and job creation, but there are many other success stories across Africa.

You worked in the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Kenya some time ago. Tell us about your experiences in conservation and sustainable development.
My time in Kenya was a tremendous learning experience for me, and I hope I was able to help build programs that will have lasting impact. I am still involved in Kenya through collaborations with icipe, Mpala Research Centre, and the National Museum. We tried to help local people understand the value of their biodiversity, how to restore degraded landscapes, and how to benefit from the biodiversity resources. Among other things, I was involved in an integrated conservation development project at Kakamega Forest in western Kenya that involved many synergetic components. These included strengthening forest management, replanting degraded lands, reducing the use of wood as fuel (through promoting efficient cooking stoves), developing sustainable income sources (especially “low tech” uses of natural products, and ecotourism), providing microfinance facilities, and enhancing the accessibility of health care and family planning.

What do you think of IITA’s efforts in agrobiodiversity conservation/sustainable agriculture?
Historically, IITA has played a very important role in agrobiodiversity conservation efforts. While some of those efforts remain strong, I am concerned that financial pressures threaten some of them, such as the collections that support biological control research and application in insects and fungi. The institutional infrastructure for understanding biodiversity is very weak in West and Central Africa, and as an international organization, IITA can play a vital role in filling the gap, and building national capacity. I am pleased to see IITA’s leadership in the CGIAR study of biomaterial collections beyond plant germplasm, which recognizes these collections as Global Public Goods.

Do you see the investment in conservation well spent?
IITA’s investment has been critical in the past, and needs to be enhanced to support future agricultural development and pest management. Climate change will bring new challenges to agriculture in Africa, and crop germplasm will be crucial, as well as knowledge of crop relatives, pest organisms, and beneficial organisms. The native forest on IITA’s Ibadan campus is an important biodiversity resource, and the protection that IITA has provided it for many years has been an important service.

What is the contribution of insect diversity to agriculture?
Insects provide vital ecosystem services to agriculture, including pollination, biological control of pests, and the maintenance of soil fertility. A recent study on the impact of CGIAR research in Africa (Maredia and Raitzer 2006) found that 80% of the impact (valued at $17 billion) resulted from four biocontrol programs using insects and mites. All those programs had to solve significant taxonomic problems (e.g., understanding the biodiversity) before they became successful, underscoring the importance of research and documentation.

How does the Consortium for the Barcode of Life contribute to the conservation and protection of biodiversity?
DNA barcoding is a species diagnostic system using short sequences of DNA (www.barcoding.si.edu), and the Consortium is an international organization promoting the development of standards and the building of the reference library of sequences. Understanding species, being able to identify them, and being able to communicate about them are basic to managing and using biodiversity. Thus, CBOL contributes through allowing fast and accurate identifications in difficult situations such as the immature stages of plant pests, the wood or roots from medicinal plants, or parts of butchered wildlife or fish in the illegal trade.

CBOL works closely with organizations with similar interests, such as BioNET INTERNATIONAL and the Global Taxonomy Initiative of the Convention on Biological Diversity. We are communicating with organizations such as the International Plant Protection Convention to help establish formal protocols for the DNA-based identification of agricultural pests.

Biodiversity conservation is key

Dominique Dumet, d.dumet@cgiar.org

Researcher sorting bambara groundnut seeds, IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver.
Researcher sorting bambara groundnut seeds, IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver.

Biodiversity or biological diversity is the variety of life on earth; it includes all living forms, animal, plant, or microbial. It is accessible at three levels: ecosystems, species within the ecosystem, and genes within the species. Today, 65 million years after the fifth and largest notable extinction of species (that wiped away the dinosaurs), alarming reports state an unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss—maybe the sixth extinction (Eldregde 1999).

The loss of spectacular trees in the rainforests or of polar bears at the North Pole is well-publicized and of great concern. However, equally worrying but so much less acknowledged is the loss of agricultural biodiversity. Agrobiodiversity refers to the part of biodiversity that feeds and nurtures people—whether derived from the genetic resources of plants, animals, fish, or forests. The diversity of these genetic resources is the foundation for sustainable agriculture and global food security. It enables plants to adapt to new pests and diseases as well as to climatic and environmental changes.

There are two complementary methods to conserve plant genetic resources: ex situ (in an artificial environment) and in situ (in a natural environment). Both approaches have pros and cons. In situ conservation allows further evolution of germplasm in natural conditions, but ex situ conservation allows ready access to clean germplasm.

Since its establishment in 1967, IITA has devoted considerable resources to ex situ conservation. In 1975, the Genetic Resources Unit was created to collect, conserve, and study food legumes, roots and tubers, and their wild relatives. Today, IITA’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC) maintains over 28,000 accessions of six main staple crop collections: black-eyed pea (cowpea), maize, soybean, cassava, yam, and banana. The biggest collection is of cowpea, with over 15,000 accessions collected or acquired in or from 89 countries, mainly in Africa. This biodiversity is very valuable for further genetic improvement and food security. It is maintained in trust for the international community and is available to all.

Any new sample entering the genebank is given a “passport” and a unique accession number. The passport holds important information related to the background of the accession. Such data, and in particular the georeference, i.e., the exact location where the sample was collected, provide valuable information. Indeed, when searching for drought tolerance traits, breeders may want to give priority to samples collected in dry areas. The analysis of georeferences of accessions also shows any potential ecogeographical gaps in the collection. Finally, the genetic erosion of a crop can be assessed during recollecting missions based on vernacular names and georeferences of already collected accessions. Unfortunately, for most collections, passport data are far from complete; the country of origin may be known, but the georeferences are missing. This lack of information is partly because the importance of passport data was underestimated in the past.

Diversity of crop genetic resources in the IITA genebank. Photo by IITA.
Diversity of crop genetic resources in the IITA genebank. Photo by IITA.

A collection of biodiversity is traditionally measured at the accession level using phenotypic characterization and evaluation descriptors. The former category generally refers to highly heritable, easily seen, measured, and expressed descriptors. The second includes descriptors that are more sensitive to the environment, such as yield or pest and disease resistance. Among the 52 international descriptors used to describe cowpea diversity, some quantitative traits show a high rate of diversity. Cowpea pod length varies from as little as 5.6 cm up to 49.9 cm, depending on the accession.

Vegetative trait diversity can be equally spectacular. Depending on the accession, the number of days required to harvest the first mature pod varies from 49 to 129 days after planting. In the context of global climate change and the shortening of the rainy season, such a descriptor is of high interest to the breeding community. Although it is important to capture diversity for today’s breeding interests, it is equally important to capture “neutral” diversity. Something that has no direct use for improvement today may become valuable in the future.

Since the 1980s, the development of molecular tools has had a substantial impact on biodiversity characterization. This fast-evolving tool provides increasingly efficient, precise, and cost-effective methods of managing collections. Where the combination of passport and phenotypic descriptors fails to identify duplicates, molecular methods provide a new tool for discriminating and identifying. It is also used to detect the potential loss of genetic integrity, whether associated to conservation or regeneration. IITA is presently fingerprinting the international collections of yam and cassava.

The genetic resources of one given crop are classified in three gene pools based on their respective compatibility/incompatibility to produce viable and fertile progeny (Harlan and de Wet 1971). Gene pool I includes the crop species itself and its wild progenitor. Gene pools II and III include other species that are related to yet different from the crop species of interest (Gepts 2006). Gene pool I is generally well represented in ex situ collections but gene pools II and III have often been neglected, although they represent a valuable reservoir of untapped genes as they evolved independently of human preferences.

Africa is a center of diversity for two of the crops maintained at IITA: cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) and yam (Dioscorea spp.) (Padulosi 1993, Orkwor et al 1998). IITA has devoted considerable resources for conserving the wild relatives of Vigna. However, efforts are still needed to further collect more wild relatives and cultivated cowpea. Although generally African biodiversity remains rich, various threats exist. Climate change attracts most attention in this matter but agriculture intensification should not be overlooked. The paradox is that research in agriculture requires diversity to build on existing traits but is one of the main threats to that vital biodiversity.

IITA is planning a collecting mission for cowpea in 2010 in regions of Nigeria where collecting had not been done and will focus on two species: V. unguiculata var. spontanea (gene pool I) and V. unguiculata subsp. baoulensis (gene pool II). Remi Pasquet, a taxonomist expert for cowpea from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), will lead the expedition.

Researcher checks tissue culture-grown cassava. Photo by Jeffrey Oliver, IITA.
Researcher checks tissue culture-grown cassava. Photo by Jeffrey Oliver, IITA.

Over the last 30 years, there has been a profound change in the legal landscape with regard to ownership of biodiversity in general and crop genetic resources in particular (Gepts 2006). In the past, biodiversity was considered a common heritage of humanity, but in 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) assigned sovereignty over biodiversity to national governments. CBD is the first legally binding framework for the conservation of biodiversity that recognizes the “knowledge, innovations, and practices of indigenous and local communities and encourages the equitable sharing of benefits arising for the utilization of such knowledge, practices, innovation, and knowledge” (Shand 1997).

More recently, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resource for Food and Agriculture reconsidered the question of sovereignty over plant genetic resources. It promotes the exchange of germplasm for 64 crops in a multilateral agreement (multilateral system, MLS). Within this frame, the conservation of plant genetic resources, i.e., the future of food security, relies on shared initiatives and responsibility and the construction of a global system. Within this system, each stakeholder has a role based on comparative advantage—whether it is access to germplasm, technology, human resources, or capacity development.

The opening of the Svalbard seed vault in Norway, in 2008 is one of the building blocks of the global system. Such an initiative caught the attention of the media and, consequently, directed the attention of the world on the erosion of plant diversity. It is somehow reassuring to know that part (even a little) of plant diversity is now kept in a place that is naturally clean, cool (energy efficient), isolated (as the North Pole), and protected (by polar bears). However, not all plant diversity can be conserved in Svalbard. In fact, many species producing so-called recalcitrant seeds as well as those clonally propagated cannot be maintained at low temperatures for various physiological reasons. These problematic species, which in IITA’s collections include yam, cassava, and banana/plantain, are generally banked in the field or in vitro slow-growth conditions. The latter approach is preferred as it protects germplasm from field biotic and abiotic risks and allows easy access to distribution of clean material.

The ultimate in vitro conservation approach is cryopreservation (conservation at very low temperatures, generally at –196 °C). At such a temperature, all biochemical and biological processes are stopped. Thus, plant tissue can, in theory, be stored forever. IITA has recently developed such a process for cassava (Dumet et al. accepted).

Whatever the ex situ conservation approach, it will never be preferable to in situ conservation. However, whenever biodiversity preservation poses a threat to human livelihoods, comfort, or convenience, the politically expedient choice is usually to “liquidate” the natural capital (Ehrlich and Pringle 2008). It seems unlikely that more natural space will be available to ensure the safety of biodiversity in the future…This is not impossible, however, if the schools are involved in teaching the value of biodiversity to the younger generations.

Dumet, D., S. Korie, and A. Adeyemi. (accepted by Acta Horticulturae) Cryobanking cassava germplasm at IITA.

Ehrlich, P.R. and R.M. Pringle. 2008. Where does biodiversity go from here? A grim business-as-usual forecast and a hopeful portfolio of partial solutions. PNAS. Vol. 105, suppl. 1.

Eldregde, N. 1999. An ActionBioscience.org original article.

Gepts, P. 2006. Plant genetic conservation and utilization: the accomplishments and future of a societal insurance policy. Crop Science 46:2278–2292.

Harlan, J.R. and J.M.J. de Wet. 1971. Towards a rational classification of cultivated plants. Taxon. 20:509–517.

Karp, A. 2002. The new genetic era: Will it help us in managing genetic diversity. In: Engels, J.M.M., V. Ramanatha Rao, A.H.D. Brown, and M.T. Jackson, eds. Managing Plant Genetic Diversity. Wallingford and Rome, CAB International and IPGRI, pp. 43–56.

Orkwor, G.C., R. Asiedu, and I.J. Ekanayake. 1998. Food yams: Advances in research, IITA and NRCRI, Nigeria.

Padulosi, S. 1993. Genetic diversity, taxonomy and ecogeographic survey of the wild relatives of cowpea (V. unguiculata). Ph.D. thesis, University of Louvain la Neuve, Belgium.

Shand, H. 1997. http://www.ukabc.org/ukabc3.htm

Insect biodiversity for sustainable management of natural resources

Georg Goergen, g.goergen@cgiar.org

Insect diversity: Tenebrionidae family checklist. Photo by G. Goergen, IITA.
Insect diversity: Tenebrionidae family checklist. Photo by G. Goergen, IITA.

The conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable use of natural resources are guiding principles of the CGIAR and a recognized thematic priority area. The CGIAR is a major player in the collection, characterization, and unrestricted distribution of agrobiodiversity resources and related information on a global scale. Currently, out of 15 centers, 11 house important genebanks amounting to some 650,000 accessions. These provide scientists with the genetic material needed to significantly increase agricultural productivity.

The conservation of genetic resources at IITA is particularly broad in coverage. Thus, collections encompass a wide range of organisms including plants but also associated nonplant biodiversity. Emphasis is placed on the ex situ preservation of plant genetic material. This is reflected in the maintenance of roughly 28,000 germplasm accessions from 19 agricultural crops and their wild relatives. More than half of the genebank’s holdings represent in-trust collections of cowpea for which IITA has received the world conservation mandate. Free and unrestricted public access to this genetic material is ensured through institutional compliance with the international seed treaty developed through the Food and Agriculture Organization with the strong involvement of the CGIAR centers.

Apart from the use of genetically improved crops, agricultural productivity is also strongly influenced by a rich in-field biodiversity comprising organisms such as fungi, bacteria, viruses, nematodes, mites, and insects. Their beneficial or deleterious impact on crops is relatively well understood when interactions are based on simple associations of organisms. However, when many players are acting sometimes across several trophic (nutrition or feeding) levels, the study of ecosystems becomes complicated and knowledge-intensive.

Immature of the whitefly Paraleyrodes minei. Photo by G. Goergen.
Immature of the whitefly Paraleyrodes minei. Photo by G. Goergen.

Generally, a thorough inventory and characterization process is the requisite condition for the sustainable management of this nonplant biodiversity. Related information is primarily stored in research collections to which IITA has been giving growing attention over the last decade. Today, important nonplant collections allow safe diagnostics of plant pathogenic microorganisms used for resistance screening in breeding programs and arthropods/fungi used for biological control (see Korkaric and Beed, this issue).

A collection that has particularly expanded over the last 15 years is the arthropod reference collection at IITA-Bénin, the largest within the whole CGIAR. It encompasses currently more than 350,000 specimens collected in a wide range of agricultural and natural environments throughout West Africa. More than 5,000 species from 330 arthropod families have been identified from the sampled material, but it is estimated that about 40−50% of all known insect biodiversity of the subregion is preserved in this collection, awaiting further study. Serving as the coordination center for the West African node of the global taxonomic network BioNET-INTERNATIONAL, this biodiversity collection is well placed to provide essential services for sustainable natural resource management at the regional level.

The most important service has been the assistance in arthropod identification. Similar to the safe characterization of germplasm when plant material is transferred under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for FAO, users need reliable and valid entity names for biodiversity monitoring, pest management, biological control, conservation, and compliance with trade-related controls under the prevailing Sanitary and Phytosanitary regulations of the World Trade Organization.

For scientists, farmers, extension and biosecurity agents, quarantine authorities, and any other user throughout the globe, accurate and timely identification is vital. It represents the unique entry point for access to existing information about any organism. Opportunities in West Africa similar to diagnostics services for plant diseases for identifying arthropods are scarce or nonexistent and fees requested by overseas centers of expertise are not affordable for most local users. Thus, by providing the names of, on average, 1,500 submitted arthropod specimens per year, IITA has been instrumental in responding to the regional need for over a decade.

Adult female of Sri Lanka fruitfly Bactrocera invadens. Photo by G. Goergen, IITA.
Adult female of Sri Lanka fruitfly Bactrocera invadens. Photo by G. Goergen, IITA.

Arthropods form the bulk of the roughly 1.8 million species that have been described until today. It is estimated that this number actually represents only a small fraction of all living organisms, the number of yet unnamed species being particularly large in tropical countries. Thanks to regular faunistic activities, IITA has contributed to the discovery and description of more than 120 arthropod species previously unknown to science. Among them are important pests and their natural enemies.

Following climate change, invasive alien species (IAS) are widely regarded as the second-greatest threat to biodiversity worldwide. They represent a growing concern for biosecurity and quarantine services, especially since increased trade and travel are expected to accelerate the rate of pest introductions. For tropical Africa, data sampled over 100 years show a rate of three introductions every two years. The failure to recognize IAS may have dire economic or ecological consequences. Prevention or early detection of such IAS requires considerable knowledge of native and exotic fauna.

For West Africa, IITA-Bénin is at the forefront of IAS surveillance with the detection of the whitefly Paraleyrodes minei Iaccarino, the Sri Lanka fruitfly Bactrocera invadens Drew et al., and lately the papaya mealybug Paracoccus marginatus Williams & Granara de Willink. Such monitoring also led to the recent detection of a new cashew pest, now awaiting description.

Infestation of the papaya mealybug Paracoccus marginatus. Photo by Manuele Tamo, IITA.
Infestation of the papaya mealybug Paracoccus marginatus. Photo by Manuele Tamo, IITA.

Despite the need to maintain the present services and the opportunities arising to work in new fields, the future of the collection remains unsure because of the lack of external funding. This is all the more surprising since new opportunities for the delivery of public goods are now appearing in various areas with significant impact for the sustainable use of natural resources. Thus, the comparatively young age of the collection makes it particularly well suited for the application of novel identification methods such as DNA barcoding.

IITA’s participation could thereby provide important additions to this publicly accessible DNA database thus advancing the goals set by the Consortium for the Barcode of Life (CBOL). Besides agricultural pests and their natural enemies, this technology will also target crop pollinators because of their vital services to ecosystems and the particular concern raised by their global decline. Thus, a full return from past collection efforts will be achieved by applying molecular techniques.

Opportunities to extend biosystematics services at IITA are manifold and crucial for the region that is known to suffer from scanty local capabilities. These include the development of web-based products, the integration of Geographical Information Systems, the provision of online identification tools using high resolution images of important West African arthropod species, and capacity building in the identification of agriculturally relevant groups at various academic levels.

IITA has already an undeniable comparative advantage in biosystematics. This advantage should be preserved in view of its vital support to the successful deployment of plant genetic material for improving food security and reducing poverty in developing countries.

Why manage noncrop biodiversity

Muris Korkaric, m.korkaric@iita-uganda.org and Fen Beed, f.beed@cgiar.org

When it comes to the diversity of nonplant taxa, the numbers alone are highly impressive. There are an estimated 5–30 million species of microorganisms globally but only two million have been formally described. In 1 g of soil, over a billion bacteria cells can be found, but fewer than 5% of the species have been named or can be grown on artificial media. For fungi, about 1.5 million species are estimated to exist and yet only 5% have been characterized taxonomically.

Disease symptom caused by Colletotrichum fuscum on lettuce leaf. Photo by F. Beed, IITA.
Disease symptom caused by Colletotrichum fuscum on lettuce leaf. Photo by F. Beed, IITA.

Nematodes remain particularly poorly described with only a fraction of the suspected half million found in nature known to man. For insects, arachnids, and myriapods only 1.1 million have been named from a potential 9 million. These numbers compare with an estimated 420,000 seed plants of which most have been described.

Knowledge of biodiversity is uneven, with strong biases towards the species level, large animals, temperate systems, and the components of biodiversity used by people. Although biodiversity underlies all ecosystem processes, modern agriculture is based on a very limited genetic pool of crops and an even more limited exploitation of the genetic resources of nonplant taxa.

This is surprising, considering that as a consequence of their diversity microorganisms and insects play pivotal roles across ecosystems that far exceed those of plants. They provide critical functions and services for food and agriculture. They are indivisibly connected with ecosystem resilience, crop health, soil fertility, and the productivity and quality of food. Modern agriculture in the developed and especially the developing world uses only a small fraction from this rich pool of genetic resources.

Conserving and using nonplant taxa
One of the vital pillars in the work of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is the conservation and use of agrobiodiversity and related knowledge. Over 650,000 accessions of crop, forage, and agroforestry genetic resources are stored and maintained through the centers’ genebank system and distributed to researchers and breeders throughout the world.

However, scientists from different CGIAR centers are also involved in collection, conservation, and sustainable use of insects and mites, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and nematodes that are either beneficial or antagonistic to crops. These research collections are used in two main areas: (1) crop health and productivity, where the collection supports screening for resistance in breeding programs, pathogen diagnostics, and the development of biological control technologies, and (2) soil health, fertility and ecosystem resilience where for example, collections support the development of biofertilizers.

IITA’s main collections of nonplant taxa are housed at the stations in Ibadan (Nigeria) and Cotonou (Bénin). At the headquarters in Ibadan, the collection and study of plant pathogenic fungi, bacteria, and viruses of important crops are coordinated and collections are maintained. Examples are those for yam and cassava anthracnose, cassava bacterial blight, and soybean rust pathogens.

Aflatoxin-producing fungus Aspergillus flavus growing out of maize grains in a culture medium. Photo by J. Atehnkeng.
Aflatoxin-producing fungus Aspergillus flavus growing out of maize grains in a culture medium. Photo by J. Atehnkeng.

Some of the collections contain large numbers of isolates of the same species which are often unique, not being found elsewhere in the world. International repositories might hold many different species, but tend to store fewer isolates per species and rarely prospect across the developing world. A diverse range of isolates gives a more complete representation of the genetic diversity which can be crucial for understanding evolutionary patterns, pathogen variation, and population dynamics. It helps breeding programs to identify targets for resistance selection.

Collections of isolates of the same species can be used to develop appropriate biocontrol technologies. One such example is IITA’s collection of Aspergillus flavus, a fungus that normally produces aflatoxin, a compound that is toxic to humans and animals. Over 4,500 strains have been collected from Nigeria alone and screened for toxin production and their ability to outcompete other strains when found simultaneously on foodstuffs. The atoxigenic and most competitive strains have been used to formulate aflasafe®, a biocontrol product (see R4D Review September 2009 issue).

Also in Ibadan, collections of beneficial soil microorganisms are studied and maintained. These organisms (such as Rhizobia spp. and mycorrhizae) enhance the nutrient uptake of leguminous crops and can be used as biofertilizers.

At IITA-Bénin, microorganisms and arthropods have been characterized and preserved for use in biological control programs to manage invasive crop pests and weeds. Plant pathogens have been identified and stored since the deployment of appropriate control measures first requires definitive identification of the causal agent of the disease. The biodiversity center maintains over 360,000 insect and mite specimens and is one of the largest reference collections in West Africa (see R4D Review September 2009).

Other IITA stations keep smaller working collections of nonplant taxa. At IITA-Uganda, collections of nematodes, bacteria, and fungi are maintained—mainly those associated with banana production. Certain Fusarium strains, for example, are used for endophyte-improved banana tissue culture for enhanced pest and disease resistance.

Looking like strung beads, these are part of a sample of insects received by the IITA biodiversity center in 12 months. Photo by G. Goergen, IITA.
Looking like strung beads, these are part of a sample of insects received by the IITA biodiversity center in 12 months. Photo by G. Goergen, IITA.

IITA is a lead organization for the conservation and use of nonplant taxa across sub-Saharan Africa. It is now characterizing nonplant taxa collections across the CGIAR as part of the World Bank-funded GPG2 project (Phase II of the Collective Action for the Rehabilitation of Global Public Goods in the CGIAR Genetic Resources System). This is the first system-wide inventory and collation of the existing global, nonplant taxa collections. The aim is to provide a coordinated and harmonized service for research and use of noncrop taxa to support durable farming systems in the developing world.

Future challenges and opportunities
There is a growing appreciation of the fact that farming occurs in an ecological context with complex interactions between crop and nonplant taxa that can be beneficial or antagonistic. There is also increasing demand for sustainable and environment-friendly solutions to manage pests and diseases, with the expectation that the biopesticide market share will increase to over 4.2% by 2010 and, for the first time, reach a market of over US$1 billion. Due to the rate of population increase the World Bank estimates that the global demand for food will double within the next 50 years. At the same time, the amount of arable land is decreasing from pressure from nonfarming activities and the unsustainable farming practices that are causing losses in soil fertility. This scenario is exacerbated by the fact that 40% of what is grown in the world is lost to weeds, pests, and diseases. In developing countries it is common for up to 70% of the yield to be lost due to attacks from insects and microbial diseases.

Therefore, agricultural production needs to be intensified and more marginal land used to produce sufficient food. This requires the deployment of improved land management techniques combined with the selection and distribution of appropriate crop and noncrop germplasm to exploit interactions with beneficial nonplant taxa and resist increased pressure from antagonistic nonplant taxa. Other factors such as climate change are likely to add new layers of complexity to these challenges. To predict risk and develop appropriate adaptation strategies, CGIAR and governments will become increasingly reliant on knowledge of and access to nonplant taxa genetic resources for food and agriculture. This will be used for research, training, or direct use in agriculture and originate, or be found, in a range of countries or centers.

Collections form the mechanism through which information and access to nonplant taxa can be obtained, but the survival of these collections is under threat from funding constraints. Appropriate policies, investments, and collaborations among CGIAR centers and with international collections are urgently needed to recognize noncrop taxa as global public goods. This would facilitate the conservation of collections, increase their visibility, and maximize their use for the benefit of sustainable farming systems. Especially in Africa, where the biodiversity is high, but the taxonomic and technological capacity is limited, work is needed to manage the full potential of nonplant taxa for food and agriculture.

A research park for Africa

John Peacock, j.peacock@cgiar.org

The IITA campus is a rich center of biodiversity. Because of the protection and nonexploitation of a patch of secondary forest, lakes, and other natural resources in the area, it represents a wealth of flora and fauna that are not common in other parts of Nigeria.

IITA campus, Ibadan, Nigeria. Image from Google Maps.
IITA campus, Ibadan, Nigeria. Image from Google Maps.

IITA was established in April 1967. Earlier in October 1965, approximately 1,000 ha of land were acquired, lying between Ojo in Ibadan town and Moniya villages. The land was covered mainly with oil palms, cassava, maize, cocoyam, and a variety of indigenous trees and climbers.

Today, 43 years on, the area is taken up by research, administration, and residential buildings, lakes, experimental plots, and 350 ha of valuable secondary forest. An arboretum was established in 1979 containing 152 different tree species; 81 of them are indigenous. In addition, the residential and administrative areas of IITA were extremely well landscaped with a diversity of both indigenous and exotic trees. Many of the original hardwood trees were left in situ.

Young Milicia excelsa (Iroko). Photo by J. Peacock.
Young Milicia excelsa (Iroko). Photo by J. Peacock.

Although protected, the forest is still a degraded secondary forest. It is basically four layered, made up of a discontinuous emergent canopy dominated by Milicia excelsa (Iroko), Celtis zenkeri, Terminalia superb, and Antiaris africana; a tree canopy made up of Blighia sapida, young Ceiba pentandra, Entandrophragma angolense, and Ricinodendron heudelotii as the more frequent woody plants. The shrub layer is composed mainly of Newbouldia laevis and Baphia nitida with seedlings and saplings of typical canopy emergents such as Mammea africana. The herb layer is highly diverse containing members of the family Orchdaceae and some Poaceae and Chromolaena sp. in the more open areas (Hall and Okali 1978, 1979).

The IITA forest provides a good habitat for a great number of different insects and birds. It is one of the Birdlife International Important Bird Areas (IBA) with 350 species, including the Ibadan Malimbe, Malimbus ibadanensis, which is endemic to this region.

Knowledge about the diversity of butterfly species at IITA is incomplete. A preliminary survey conducted by lepidopterist Robert Warren in 2002−2009 has confirmed the presence of 149 species (See Warren, this issue). This figure is considered low and could be as high as 400.

Pararistolochia goldieana. Photo by IITA.
Pararistolochia goldieana. Photo by IITA.

In December 1987, a group of enthusiastic volunteers from IITA embarked on carving out a nature trail in the forest. Many useful plant species including herbs, medicinal plants, fiber-producing plants, and fruit and timber trees can be seen from the trail. The most spectacular is a climber with a long name and a huge (40 cm diameter and 50 cm length) dark-red flower called Pararistolochia goldieana, which belongs to the family Aristolochiaceae.

The rich biodiversity of the campus is also influenced by its nine lakes. The largest is approximately 70 ha. A dam (The John Craig Dam) was constructed in 1969 and impounds water from the Awba River which runs through the Gunwin watershed. This lake is home to various varieties of fish, aquatic weeds, and birds.

Currently there are many fish in the nine lakes and ponds. Records show that the largest lake was stocked with a wide variety of species. The dominant ones are the African Catfish (Clarias gariepinnus), Nile Perch (Lates niloticus), Slapwater (Heterotes niloticus), and various Tilapines (Oreochromis niloticus, Tilapia zilli, etc.). But a wide variety of other species are present, e.g., Gymnarchus niloticus, Hepsestes odoe, and Channa obscura. There is also a diversity of aquatic weeds, Nuphar spp. (water lily), Azolla sp. (water fern), Potomogeton sp., Typha sp. (bulrush), and Lagarosiphon cordofanus Caspry. L. cordofanus Caspry is uncommon and this may be the only known occurrence in Nigeria (Adeniyi Jayeola, personal communication).

Despite the water and forest habitat, the resident level of mammalian fauna is low. The cane rat or grass-cutter, duiker, mongoose, potto, tree hyrax, civet, and the giant Gambian rat can be seen. Others are the bush-tailed porcupine, squirrels, and small antelopes. Amphibians, lizards, and snakes are also common but have not been studied or documented.

Fruit bats flying over a Ceiba pentandra tree (Yoruba local name: osun papa), IITA. Photo by IITA.
Fruit bats flying over a Ceiba pentandra tree (Yoruba local name: osun papa), IITA. Photo by IITA.

However, there is a large population of straw-colored fruit bats. The flying foxes (Eidolon helvum) form large colonies in the IITA forest. They are the second largest West African bat with a wing span of up to 953 mm. Adults can weigh up to 350 g. They roost conspicuously in the open, covering hectares of treetop branches in the IITA forest and arboretum. An important food for these bats is the fruit of the Iroko tree (M. excelsa). The Iroko produce finger-sized fruits that resemble mulberries. Each fruit contains an average of 80 small, tomato-like seeds which are then transported away from the parent tree. Iroko ranks as one of Africa’s most valuable hardwood trees.

Why is IITA so concerned about its secondary rainforest, indigenous trees, and its rich biodiversity? Deforestation is a serious problem in Nigeria that currently has one of the highest rates of forest loss (3.5%) in the world, translating to an annual loss of 350,000–400,000 ha of forest land (See Ladipo, this issue). Since 1990, Nigeria has lost 6.1 million ha or 35.7% of its forest cover. These figures give Nigeria the dubious distinction of having the highest deforestation rate of natural forest on the planet, and the lowest percentage (2.4%) of rainforest remaining in any African country.

The IITA campus is one of the few reserves in Nigeria where valuable and rare indigenous trees, such as the Iroko, are safe from poachers. Today there is only one specimen of Parkia bicolor in southwestern Nigeria; this one tree is on the IITA campus.

Recently the Director General of IITA, Hartmann, announced that the IITA campus and all it contains will become an African Science Park. This decision is most timely, coming during the International Year of Biodiversity. This will create a more diverse scientific community which could include agriculturalists, ornithologists, lepidopterists, ecologists, foresters, botanists, invasion biologists, and conservationists.

In the future, the IITA campus could be used as a research site for reconciling increasing agricultural production in the tropics and the conservation of biodiversity. IITA has embarked on seed collecting and propagation of indigenous trees to develop an in-situ conservation program for indigenous trees of West Africa. It is also working with scientists at the A.P. Leventis Ornithological Research Institute (APLORI); Centre for Environmental, Renewable, Natural, Resources Management Research and Development (CENRAD); Forestry Research Institute of Nigeria (FRIN); the University of Ibadan; and the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew to ensure that its rich biodiversity will be conserved for many generations to come. This new initiative at IITA will be used to educate and encourage others in Nigeria to preserve these valuable rainforests.

Hall, J.B. and D.U.U. Okali. 1978. Observer-bias of complex in a floristic survey of tropical vegetation. Journal of Ecology 66: 241–249.

Hall, J.B. and D.U.U. Okali. 1979. A structural and floristic analysis of woody fallow vegetation near Ibadan, Nigeria. Journal of Ecology 67: 321–346.

A tough puzzle: Biodiversity and NRM

Peter Neuenschwander, p.neuenschwander@cgiar.org


In the past, natural resources management covered approximately half of all activities and funds of IITA and similar institutes in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Most often, it did not include the conservation of wild biodiversity. The other half of funds and personnel were allotted to crop plant biodiversity, mainly the varieties available worldwide in genebanks. Increasingly, however, farmers’ varieties and wild relatives of crop plants became important and the biodiversity of pathogens and witchweed were investigated in view of their use for resistance breeding.

Thanks to new technologies, breeding barriers between species could be overcome and foreign genetic material was incorporated into so-called “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs). These are being tested at a relatively small scale in some African countries. They are the source of real worries and polemical distortions, while countries such as the USA, China, Argentina, Brazil, and India have chosen to grow some GMOs on vast areas. Today, GMOs are at the center of a heated debate in an unnecessarily antagonistic manner, pitting the ideals of biodiversity conservation against the need to feed the world.

Since the end of the 1980s, the importance of biodiversity in general for a sustainable future of Planet Earth has been increasingly publicized. At the Rio Conference in 1990, global warming and the loss of biodiversity were singled out as the two most important issues facing mankind. The climate conference in Copenhagen last year was supposed to reach goals on halting and mitigating climate change. The conference is generally considered to have been a failure; nevertheless, great efforts to avoid a climatic disaster are being taken by many governments, even without the wished-for strict regulations.

And here we are in 2010, the “International Year of Biodiversity”. International nongovernmental organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), BirdLife International, and many others are highly active in conservation and their efforts are showing successes. Most countries have subscribed to their ethics, signed the international treaties, and established focal points for the Convention of Biodiversity. For the CGIAR, though, biodiversity conservation mostly remains germplasm conservation. It is the world leader in the conservation of genetic material of crop plants and their wild relatives (for instance, yam and cowpea, of particular interest in West Africa). It is instrumental in the development of rules and regulations about the ownership of germplasm under the umbrella of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Meristem excision under aseptic conditions (laminar flow workstation) using stereomicroscope, IITA genebank. Photo by IITA.
Meristem excision under aseptic conditions (laminar flow workstation) using stereomicroscope, IITA genebank. Photo by IITA.

IITA is also co-developing best practices and tool kits for collecting germplasm and houses important pathogen collections. Generally though, conservation of other forms of biodiversity is treated rather timidly. The general antagonism between agriculture and nature conservation thus persists. Yet, it probably need not be so: In 2001, IUCN and Future Harvest came together to publish a policy paper outlining ‘The common ground and common future, how eco-agriculture can help feed the world and save wild biodiversity’. While some of the claims might be overwrought, enough is known to allow progress towards the twin goals of saving the bulk of biodiversity while feeding the human population.

Insects are the majority of all described species. On a worldwide level, BioNET INTERNATIONAL organizes and stimulates the coordination of taxonomic research (of all taxa, but with special emphasis on insects). The IITA biodiversity collection of insects, housed in IITA-Bénin, serves as the network center for West and Central Africa. This collection, the largest in the CGIAR, is instrumental in providing basic information about the biodiversity of natural enemies used in all types of biological control.

In addition, the insectary at IITA-Bénin houses numerous live beneficial insects and mites. IITA-Bénin can respond to the changing situations of ever more invading insects and mites. Thus, in the last few years and in West Africa alone, we have seen the invasion and sometimes the control of spiraling whitefly, a new invading fruit fly (Sri Lanka fruit fly), and very recently the papaya mealybug. Last year, when the cassava mealybug invaded Thailand, IITA was able to provide effective parasitoids without delay.

Many more natural enemies are out there in the wild, suppressing their hosts or their prey. Most concern agricultural pests, but increasingly, conservation biological control is becoming important to save natural habitats from invaders. IITA is participating in these international efforts through its biological control of floating water weeds across Africa.

To assess the elusive so-called “ecosystem services”, sophisticated biodiversity studies are required. IITA’s historic classical biological control projects were against cassava and mango mealybug and cassava green mite, three formidable agricultural pests. The first two were not even known to science before they appeared in new habitats. These examples from South America and India illustrate how the ‘ecosystem services’ provided by pests’ natural enemies in the home environments remain hidden until harmful insects and mites get dissociated from their predators. Important services are also provided by microbials and pollinators, but these become visible to farmers and policymakers only when their function is impaired. Examples are lack of conservation because of wanton destruction or by bad agricultural practices, such as those that lead to the depletion of nutrients in soils or the destruction of suppressive soils.

Researcher monitoring cowpea seeds kept in cold storage room in the IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.
Researcher monitoring cowpea seeds kept in cold storage room in the IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.

The contribution to sustainable agriculture and conservation that IITA can make is by improving the tools (GIS, sociological, etc.) and by significant advances in research and its application to real world needs. We can thus establish an intellectual agenda for discussion and change within IITA, collaborating organizations, and society at large. Comparing this claim for action with the actual situation at IITA, we find that traditional biodiversity conservation in the form of crop plant germplasm is rather well implemented; but the conservation of nonplant biodiversity is weakly institutionalized and would need better support. Natural resources management offers the intellectual platform to integrate the different disciplines in a sustainable manner. Unfortunately, the inclusion of all biodiversity activities in a holistic natural resources management remains a dream.

Within the period of 20 years, biodiversity conservation has moved from being a specialized field to becoming an urgent task to be carried out before it is too late and extinction takes away the organisms we might one day have to rely on for survival. Even where we do not completely understand the benefits of biodiversity in providing stability to ecosystems, conservation should be implemented for the good of future generations. Apart from research, this also takes the form of providing refuges for biodiversity for future studies, as is the case with the IITA-Ibadan forest or the rehabilitated forest at Drabo Gbo in Bénin. Our national partners have many more examples; they might cherish our leadership in this matter.