654 The Role of Plant Genetic Resources in Safeguarding Global Carrying Capacity

in HortScience

Plants provide humans with food, fiber, feed, ornamentals, industrial products, medicine, shelter, and fuel. As vegetation, they maintain global environmental integrity and the carrying capacity for all life. From an anthropocentric perspective, plants serve as genetic resources (PGR) for sustaining the growing human population. Research on PGR can provide basic knowledge for crop improvement or environmental management that enables renewable, sustainable production of the preceding necessities. PGR also provide the raw material for increasing yield and end product's quality, while requiring fewer inputs (water, nutrients, agrichemicals, etc.). The staples of life—30 or so major grain, oilseed, fiber, and timber species—comprise the “thin green line” vital to human survival, either directly, or through trade and income generation. Many crop genebanks worldwide focus on conserving germplasm of these staples as a shield against genetic vulnerability that may endanger economies and humanity on an international scale. Fewer genebanks and crop improvement programs conserve and develop “minor crops,” so called because of their lesser economic value or restricted cultivation globally. Yet, these minor crops, many categorized as horticultural, may be key to human carrying capacity—especially in geographically or economically marginal zones. The USDA/ARS National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) contains a great number and diversity of minor crop germplasm. The NPGS, other genebanks, and minor crop breeding programs scattered throughout the world, help safeguard human global carrying capacity by providing the raw genetic material and genetic improvement infrastructure requisite for producing superior minor crops. The latter may represent the best hope for developing new varieties and crops, new crop rotations, and new renewable products that in the future may enhance producer profitability or even ensure producer and consumer survival.

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