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  • Rights: AgResearch
    Published 20 October 2022 Referencing Hub media

    Aotearoa New Zealand’s export economy is highly reliant upon pasture grasses. Farmers use plant species that best fit seasonality, soil type, regional climate and animal needs. Climate change will likely create different growing conditions. The Margot Forde Genebank preserves seeds of genetically diverse plant populations. Some of these existing plants may provide solutions to future problems.

    Jargon alert

    Ryegrass – perennial ryegrass is the most widely sown pasture grass in Aotearoa.

    Germplasm – the set of genetic resources for an organism. Germplasm can either come from seeds or from living tissue and is used to grow new plants.

    Phenotype – the characteristics of an organism determined by both genetic make-up and environmental influences.

    Questions for discussion

    • What threats does climate change pose for agriculture?
    • How can new forage/pasture plant species help with climate change-related issues?
    • What role can the Margot Forde Genebank play in helping farmers tackle these issues?
    • What is meant by the statement, “Mother Nature has done the hard yards – we just need to go and discover her secrets hiding in seeds all around the world.”



    All life starts with a seed. Some are tiny, some are big, but each contains everything that life will need. How tall it will get, how strong. Is it suited to a desert, a swamp, a field or a forest? At the Margot Forde Genebank, our duty is to catalogue that data – gathering as much as possible so we can harness the knowledge within every seed we can find.

    Evolution has driven life to be prepared for nearly every problem under the sun. A plant’s genetics and environment combine to make thousands of variations even within a single species – aeons worth of data just waiting to be tapped into. Yet how much of this giant, natural library do we currently know about? We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what knowledge is available around the world. Take ryegrass for example. Of the wild populations that exist, only a small percentage have been studied. Multiply that by the amount of plants known to humanity, and you can see just how completely in the dark we truly are.

    Knowledge is power. With the advance of climate change, our world is facing its greatest challenge ever. Agriculture and horticulture that once relied on consistent climate is now under threat. Our economy, largely tied to our primary producers and therefore the diversity of our plant species, is in fragile balance with how well we will adapt to the changing world around us. In the short term, outputs may fall and production may stagnate. In the long term, if we don’t act, we’re faced with economic upheaval, species extinction and a food supply at severe risk of collapse.

    But it’s not all doom and gloom – there is hope. Remember that little seed? The more we can learn from them, the more we’ll find they’ve already solved these problems. Using grasses from the arid deserts of Spain will be perfect for the drier East Coast regions of the future. Our native plants can be studied and adapted for the changes they’ll be faced with. New forage species can help reduce methane production in stock and help us achieve our climate goals.

    Imagine an Aotearoa where our farms are hyper-targeted with species that take advantage of very specific environments – so a high country field in Otago can be as productive as one in the lush Waikato – mitigating the inherent hazards of monocultures while also reducing the amount of arable land needed to feed the same amount of people.

    To turn this vision into reality, we must change our current paradigm of selection and breeding and adopt a more holistic approach – shifting away from focusing only on genetics to evaluating the whole germplasm, including how specific phenotypes adapt to their specific environments. By detecting the elite lines of germplasm for desired traits, we can more intelligently select targets for future breeding programmes. Taking this perspective, we can see that the more knowledge we at the Margot Forde Genebank can catalogue, the more our partners can be armed with the tools to solve the problems of the future.

    We believe the biggest problems facing us today can be solved by resilient plants that already exist. Mother Nature has done the hard yards – we just need to go and discover her secrets hiding in seeds all around the world.

    Margot Forde Genebank, AgResearch

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