Science & Technology in Action

5th Edition

Why Preserve Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture?

Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Agricultural Science
The intensification of agriculture has resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of plant and animal varieties being cultivated. Work is not in progress to ensure that varieties do not become extinct.
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Lesson excerpt

What are Genetic Resources?
We can define genetic resources as material of plant or animal origin containing functional units of heredity (genes) of actual or potential use. This lesson focuses on Irish plant and animal genetic resources and their specific uses in agriculture and food production. Plant Genetic Resources are the raw material that farmers and plant breeders use to improve the quality and productivity of crops. The range of indigenous plant genetic resources in Ireland is relatively narrow, but the collection and preservation of these resources could make an important contribution to future crop research both at home and abroad. Animal Genetic Resources are those animal species and populations that can be used for the production of food and agriculture. The management and conservation of animal genetic resources in the form of older or rare breeds, along with more modern breeds, is important in order to maintain genetically diverse animal populations for the future.

Historical Overview
Human beings originally gathered plants or hunted animals for food. Agriculture evolved as people first deliberately planted the seeds of certain plants and, in time, selectively planted the seeds of the more useful ones. Some animals were found to be suitable for domestication by humans as a source of food.

As agriculture evolved in different regions, plants and animals that were adapted to the local terrain and climate were cultivated and bred. They were often more resistant to the parasites endemic in their area. People had reliable sources of food, clothing and medicine. Pigs, for example, which were a source of meat, were also our original refuse disposal service. Geese had an aversion to broad-leaved crops, but grazed the competing grass and weeds. Animal waste provided crop fertiliser; the crops provided food and and income.

True or False?

  1. The increased demand for food that accompanied the development of cities made productive animal breeds and crop strains more desirable. true
  2. Having genetically diverse populations can help to reduce the need for anti-biotics. true
  3. In Europe, about half the livestock breeds that existed in 1900 are extinct and a third of the remaining breeds are threatened. true
  4. Native Irish bees are well adapted to the parasitic varroa mite which arrived with introduced species. false
  5. Pigs bred for lean meat are poorly adapted to outdoor production because they do not have sufficient insulating fat. true
  6. Seeds are normally planted deeper in the ground than would happen naturally. Domestication has therefore favoured seeds with large endosperm reserves. true
  7. GM technology has removed the need for preservation of genetic resources. false
  8. Monoculture contributed to U.S. southern corn leaf blight outbreaks. true