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New Scientist

A Quechua Farmer working the land in Puru. These farmers now play a major role in protecting the world's crops (Image: Eye Ubiquitous / Rex Features)

A Quechua Farmer working the land in Puru. These farmers now play a major role in protecting the world's crops (Image: Eye Ubiquitous / Rex Features)

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IF YOU like potatoes, chances are you will one day owe some measure of thanks to the Quechua Indians of Peru. That's because they will be making sure that potatoes continue to be available whatever the vagaries of future climate change. The Quechua (pictured) are among the first recipients of a new global fund, established last week, to make poor farmers the custodians of all the world's threatened crops.

Importantly, the move could provide valuable options should the world find itself in another food crisis.

The Peruvian farmers will be paid to look after the most diverse collection of potatoes in the world. They will try growing varieties at different altitudes and in different climatic conditions so that if today's commercially available potato varieties start to fail anywhere in the world, replacement varieties will be ready and waiting.

The aim of the new fund is to achieve the same level of readiness for all the world's staple food crops. It is a key practical element of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which aims to provide an "insurance policy" for crops. The fund has two main goals - to prevent the loss of neglected or underutilised crop varieties, and to sustain the full diversity of common crops.

Though the treaty was agreed in 2001 and came into effect in 2004, the rich and poor factions of the 120 signatory nations have been haggling until now over who should pay, and how much.

During tense negotiations last week in Tunis, Tunisia, rich countries of the world finally agreed to bankroll the five-year $116 million "Benefit-Sharing Fund" that will finance projects like the one in Peru. In essence, the fund will compensate farmers so they carry on growing unusual or traditionally grown crops instead of switching to more profitable, commercial varieties.

By keeping as many food varieties as possible ticking over as usual on small-scale farms throughout the world, the hope is that they will be available if needed in a climate crisis, or a food shortage like last year's. "In Peru, the aim is to react to climate change," says Bert Visser of the Centre for Genetic Resources in Wageningen, the Netherlands, and a key negotiator.

Visser points out that the treaty has already enabled the establishment of an international vault containing 1.1 million seed varieties, which opened last year in Svalbard, Norway. The new fund aims to secure the food varieties which cannot be banked in this way, and that can only be preserved if farmers carry on growing them.

Norway, Spain, Italy and Switzerland have already contributed $500,000 to the fund, which was last week divided between 11 recipient projects. Crucially, rich signatories to the treaty have now committed to supplying the remaining millions over the next five years. The US is currently considering signing up. If it does, China, Mexico and Japan are likely to follow suit.

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