Humans’ age-old agricultural activities have contributed, in the course of history, to the creation of a large pool of biodiversity. Since the 1950s, however, due to economic pressure and intensive urbanisation, drastic genetic erosion of old landraces and cultivars took place and actions for collecting, evaluating and conserving them became, and still are, urgently needed. Data show that about 50 per cent of the main native livestock breeds (cattle, pig, sheep, goat and poultry) in the EU-15 countries are either extinct or classed as endangered or critical (EEA, 2006).
Biological and genetic diversity in agriculture is essential for the sustainable development of agricultural production and of rural areas. Genetically poorly diversified agricultural areas are indeed more threatened by environmental stresses and disasters; besides, genetically diversified food offers a greater variety of nutrients useful for good general health and resistance to disease. The necessary measures should be taken to collect, conserve, characterise and utilise the potential of that biodiversity in a sustainable way to promote the global aims of the CAP. The conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources in agriculture is one of the objectives of the CBD. It is also a major objective of the FAO’s Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and it is a key topic of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
Coordinated actions at Belgian level (including regional level) must be set up for a better, safe conservation strategy for the genetic diversity that is essential for food and agriculture. The conservation of agricultural genetic diversity is to be achieved through in situ conservation of local species, varieties, domestic animal breeds and microbial life forms with actual or potential value. Actions should also be taken to improve the development of adequate gene banks useful for the ex situ conservation of genetic resources for food and agriculture. Such conservation requires an adequate system of economic and social incentives, combined with increased consumer awareness. The Regions take the conservation of breeds and varieties into consideration in their agri-environment measures. Ongoing initiatives cover, among other things, the establishment of private orchards, the safeguarding of poultry varieties and a programme to promote the rearing of the “Blanc-Bleu mixte” breed of cattle and the “mouton ardennais roux” breed of sheep in Wallonia (in situ conservation) and the establishment of cryo-banks for ruminant rearing in Wallonia (ex situ conservation).
A specific national strategy focusing on the management of agricultural biodiversity should be developed in the first place for coordinating the diverse actions already going on and to promote new ones. All the actions will contribute to the implementation of both the FAO’s Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA) and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture that stipulate clearly the implementation of a National Strategy and a National Inventory of plant genetic resources for agriculture.
Furthermore, the importance of biodiversity for food and nutrition should be taken more into account by public health and food chain safety policies and their scientific bodies.