What are land-races?
A landrace is a variety of domesticated animal or agricultural plant species which has developed over a long period of time and as a result has adapted to the local natural environment in which it lives. It was a widespread practice of farmers and vegetable growers to save seed from their crops annually for the following year’s cultivation. The seeds would come from selected plants that were best suited to the local conditions and over generations of selective breeding, many varieties have been developed with different traits across the country and worldwide. The advantage of this method of seed-saving was that it maintained genetically diverse crops that were particularly suited to growing in their local environment and resistant to local diseases. These plants have now become a valuable genetic resource for future generations. This practice of seed collecting has largely died out in Ireland and Europe in favour of highly modified crop varieties derived from a small number of species, not necessarily well adapted to the local environment. Modern crop varieties tend to be genetically poor in comparison to the genetically rich land-race species.
Why is it important to conserve landraces?
The decrease in crop genetic diversity poses a risk to food security in the future, especially in light of a growing human population. As a result there is an urgent need to conserve as many land-races as possible ensure that genetic diversity is not lost. Many farmers have stopped growing these traditional varieties. It is important to source what is still accessible before it is too late.
How are Landraces conserved?
There are two forms of conservation:
in situ: Where the plant is grown, managed and harvested in its original agricultural environment.
ex situ: Were seeds, plants, plant parts, tissues or cells are preserved in an artificial environment. The most common form of ex-situ conservation is by the use of gene-banks. The seeds are typically stored in laminated packets which are placed in containers and kept frozen at -18°C.
What is been done in Ireland?
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry is responsible for the co-ordination of conservation of genetic resources in Ireland. There are several organisations and institutions involved in the conservation and preservation of genetic resources including Irish Seed savers Association, Genetic Heritage Ireland, The National Botanic Gardens and Trinity College Dublin.
Examples of landrace projects being carried out in Ireland:
- Genetic Heritage Ireland, in conjunction with the Irish Seed Savers Association, funded by the Department of Agriculture initiated the Irish Cereal Varieties Project: Limited seed collections of known Irish wheat, oat and barley varieties were grown and seed then conserved within the gene-bank.
- Synge Cottage project on Inis Meain: The Heritage Council funded the growing of a local rye crop (Secale cereale) on Inis Meain for restoring a typical thatched cottage on the island. More information at
- The potato gene-bank at the Tops Potato Centre located in Raphoe, Co. Donegal, has 400 unique potato varieties, the oldest of which pre-date the Irish Famine, the collection includes old and modern Irish varieties and varieties from abroad. The accessions are held both in vitro and in situ.
- The Irish Seed Savers Association have collections of varieties of vegetables, soft fruit, flowers, grains, potatoes and apple trees, both as living plants and seed collections.
What is happening world-wide?
There are a wide range of international organisations involved in the conservation and policy making in relation to landraces around the world.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) came into force in 2004. Its objectives are to conserve and promote the sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from their use, in accordance with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for sustainable agriculture and food security.
The updated Global Plan of Action for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (PGRFA) that was adopted by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) in November 2011. This replaced the First GPA which had been in place since 1996.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, situated on a group of Norwegian islands called Svalbard. This huge gene-bank was opened in 2008 with the purpose of storing duplicates of the world’s food crop seeds from collections around the world. Duplicate samples of Ireland’s most important seed collections of forage grasses, potatoes, wheat, oats and barley collections are stored there as part of Ireland’s international commitment to maintain a broad genetic resource base for future needs.