Awareness of the need for biodiversity conservation is now universally accepted, but most often recent conservation activities have focused on wild species. Crop species and the diversity between and within them has significant socioeconomic as well as heritage value. The bulk of genetic diversity in domesticated species is located in traditional varieties maintained by traditional farming systems. These traditional varieties, commonly referred to as landraces, are severely threatened by genetic extinction primarily due to their replacement by modern genetically uniform varieties. The conservation of landrace diversity has been hindered in part by the lack of an accepted definition to define the entity universally recognized as landraces. Without a definition it would be impossible to prepare an inventory and without an inventory changes in landrace constituency could not be recognized over time. Therefore, based on a literature review, workshop discussion and interviews with key informants, common characteristics of landraces were identified, such as: historical origin, high genetic diversity, local genetic adaptation, recognizable identity, lack of formal genetic improvement, and whether associated with traditional farming systems. However, although these characteristics are commonly present they are not always all present for any individual landrace; several crop-specific exceptions were noted relating to crop propagation method (sexual or asexual), breeding system (self-fertilized or cross-fertilized species), length of formal crop improvement, seed management (selection or random propagation) and use. This paper discusses the characteristics that generally constitute a landrace, reviews the exceptions to these characteristics and provides a working definition of a landrace. The working definition proposed is as follows: ‘a landrace is a dynamic population(s) of a cultivated plant that has historical origin, distinct identity and lacks formal crop improvement, as well as often being genetically diverse, locally adapted and associated with traditional farming systems’.
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