What are landraces?
A landrace is a variety of domesticated animal or agricultural plant species which has, over a long period of time, adapted to the local natural environment in which it lives. It was a widespread practice for farmers and vegetable growers to save seed from their crops annually for the following year’s cultivation. The seeds would come from selected plants that were best suited to the local conditions and over generations of selective breeding, many varieties with different traits have been developed. The advantage of this method of seed-saving was that it maintained genetically diverse crops that were particularly suited to growing in their local environment and were resistant to local diseases. These plants have now become a valuable genetic resource for future generations. This practice of seed collecting has largely died out in Ireland (and Europe) in favour of highly modified crop varieties derived from a small number of species, not necessarily well adapted to the local environment. Modern crop varieties tend to be genetically poor in comparison to the traditional landraces.
Why is it important to conserve landraces?
The decrease in crop genetic diversity poses a risk to food security in the future, especially in light of a growing human population. As a result there is an urgent need to conserve as many landraces as possible to ensure their genetic diversity is not lost, but can be available to future crop breeding programmes. Many farmers have stopped growing these traditional varieties. It is important to identify what does still exist and to conserve it as a future resource.
How are Landraces conserved?
There are two forms of conservation:
in situ: Where the plant is continually grown, managed and harvested in its original agricultural environment.
ex situ: Where seeds, plants, plant parts, tissues or cells are preserved in an artificial environment. The most common form of ex-situ conservation is through storage of material in gene-banks. The seeds are typically stored in laminated packets which are placed in containers and kept frozen at -18°C.
What is been done in Ireland?
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is responsible for the conservation of genetic resources in Ireland. A number of other organisations and institutions assist in this task: Irish Seed savers Association, National Botanic Gardens and Trinity College Dublin.
Examples of landrace projects being carried out in Ireland:
- Genetic Heritage Ireland, in conjunction with the Irish Seed Savers Association, funded by the Department of Agriculture initiated the Irish Cereal Varieties Project: Limited seed collections of known Irish wheat, oat and barley varieties were grown and seed then conserved within the national genebank.
- Synge Cottage project on Inis Meain: The Heritage Council funded the growing of a local rye crop (Secale cereale) on Inis Meain for restoring a typical thatched cottage on the island.
- The potato gene-bank at the Tops Potato Centre located in Raphoe, Co. Donegal, has 400 unique potato varieties, the oldest of which pre-date the Irish Famine, the collection includes old and modern Irish varieties and varieties from abroad. The accessions are held both in vitro and in situ.
- The Irish Seed Savers Association have collections of varieties of vegetables, soft fruit, flowers, grains, potatoes and apple trees, both as living plants and seed collections.
What is happening world-wide?
There are a wide range of international organisations involved in the conservation and policy making in relation to landraces around the world.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) came into force in 2004. Its objectives are to conserve and promote the sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from their use, in accordance with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for sustainable agriculture and food security.
The updated Global Plan of Action for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA) that was adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) in November 2011. This replaced the First GPA which had been in place since 1996.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, situated on a group of Norwegian islands called Svalbard. This huge gene-bank was opened in 2008 with the purpose of storing duplicates of the world’s food crop seeds from collections around the world. Duplicate samples of Ireland’s most important seed collections of forage grasses, potatoes, wheat, oats and barley collections are stored there as part of Ireland’s international commitment to maintain a broad genetic resource base for future needs.