What is genetic diversity?
Ever wondered how genetics become important to conservation? If we take the human population, there are a number of genetic characteristics within it. These characteristics are distributed among us but all of them need not appear in any one person. You may have the genes A, B, C and someone else may show C, D, E in their genetic makeup. So, genetic diversity is the measure of the different genes present in a species. The higher this diversity or the higher the variation, the more chances there are for evolution. If we humans had very few genes among us, we will not be able to adapt to changing conditions and maintain survival. This applies to all other living beings too.
Conservation is made easy by high levels of genetic diversity. On the other hand, low diversity is a signal that conservation efforts have to get under way immediately. If a population size is reduced drastically, nature has only a few available gene combinations to work with. The options for breeding will be limited and the newborns will not be very different from each other. If they don’t have the characteristics to adapt to climate change or drought, then all of them will die and the species will become extinct. Even if such groups are rescued, very small numbers of individuals will create genetic uniformity and as such, a less vital population.
How is food security affected?
Agricultural crops are not naturally fortified with genes that enable them to fight diseases and pest attacks. This is because of the reproductive nature of plants and also because farmers tend to prefer certain high yield varieties over others. Then how are food crops protected? Thanks to gene manipulating techniques, wild tropical plants have contributed a great deal to rescuing their domesticated cousins. In the US, genetic diversity increases the total value of crops by about $520 million a year. That is saving a lot of money. Pesticides have never been such cost efficient forms of control, mainly because pests acquire resistance to them over time. Farmers also realize the value if genetic diversity when it comes to beating disease. Crops (i.e. corn) that had been affected by fungi, viruses and other infections were able to recover due to introduction of new genes.
There are some places in the world that are somewhat hostile to cultivation, like the deserts and drought-prone areas in the African continent. Millions of people face starvation and international aid alone cannot end the suffering. Developing the application of genetic diversity in these parts is arguably the best way to offer a quick, long-term solution to this situation.