Two of the world?s leading agriculture organizations, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the CGIAR Consortium have provided US$109 million to maintain 706,000 samples of crop, forage and agroforestry resources globally.
The five year programme to be implemented through the CGIAR Research Program for Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections, would maintain samples of crop, forage and agroforestry resources held in ?gene banks? at 11 CGIAR research centres around the world. ?Gene banks help preserve genetic material, be it plant or animal. In plants, this could be by freezing cuts from the plant, or stocking the seeds.
The seed banks house the world?s largest and most diverse collections of wheat, maize, rice, potato, banana, sorghum, forages, beans and many other plants. This diversity is viewed as essential to providing farmers with new crop varieties critical to overcoming an array of weather- and pest-related threats. Over the last ten years alone, CGIAR gene banks have distributed more than one million samples to plant breeders and crop researchers?a process that has saved millions of lives globally through the development of new, resilient crop varieties.
?With climate change greatly intensifying demands on plant breeders to develop new heat-, drought- and flood-tolerant crops, it is particularly important for the samples conserved in the CGIAR?s gene banks to be readily accessible and in optimal condition,? said ?slaug Marie Haga, incoming executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
?This particular program underpins global agricultural research; it builds a foundation for all of our other research programs to succeed. Ultimately, the seeds and vegetative material stored and maintained in the gene banks are the lifeblood of the crop improvement research being carried out across the CGIAR Consortium. If our gene banks suffer, our research suffers,? said Dr Frank Rijsberman, the Chief Executive Officer of the CGIAR Consortium.
?That?s why we continue to work with the Trust, an organization dedicated solely to protecting crop diversity, to put these gene banks on a more firm financial footing and ensure they will be maintained and improved for generations to come,? Dr Rijsberman added.
Maintaining the hundreds of thousands of crop varieties held throughout the CGIAR network presents a complex challenge. Seeds and vegetative material must be collected, cleaned, stored and rejuvenated when aged. They also must be tested periodically for health and viability, safely duplicated and exchanged. And each of these steps must be carefully recorded and catalogued. Gene banks must also dedicate funds and research to find better, cost-effective ways to conserve crops that do not produce seed or whose seeds are hard to store?like potatoes, cassava and bananas.
In addition to lacking funding for basic maintenance costs, crop diversity collections are threatened by political unrest and weather disasters. For example, the gene bank at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), and its valuable collection of cultivated and wild relatives of wheat, barley, lentil, chickpea, faba bean, peas and forage crops, was recently threatened by conflicts around ICARDA?s headquarters in Aleppo, Syria, and had to be rapidly replicated or relocated to other CGIAR gene banks, national partners and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
Beyond maintaining the vitality of the existing collections, the CGIAR Consortium partnership with the Trust envisions adding some 56,000 new samples or ?accessions? to the gene banks by 2015, including a large number of wild relatives of cultivated crops. Wild relatives often contain important traits, such as drought tolerance or disease resistance that can be hard to find in cultivated varieties. New plant breeding technologies are making it easier to borrow traits from distant wild relatives and use them to improve the productivity or fitness of a cultivated crop.
More recently, the seed collections maintained by the International Crop Research Centre for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) have been mined to help farmers in the drought-stricken horn of Africa switch to more drought-tolerant varieties.
The CGIAR?s gene bank collection is intended for everyday use by plant breeders and crop researchers. The collection is safety duplicated in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on a remote island near the Arctic Circle. With the government of Norway, the Trust established the Svalbard facility as a back-up seed collection built to stand the test of time and to protect the world?s crop diversity from natural or manmade disasters.
The new partnership between the Trust and the CGIAR Consortium will allocate the US$109 million over the next five years to fund crop preservation and collection work at the CGIAR gene banks and ensure their crop samples are still widely shared. During that time, the CGIAR Consortium and the Trust will work with donors to secure a more permanent endowment to fund the gene banks in perpetuity.
?Given all of the turbulent issues surrounding agriculture and food today, from high commodity prices to threats from weather extremes, I think the international community is waking up to the enormous value of preserving crop diversity,? said Margaret Catley-Carlson, outgoing chair of the Trust?s executive board and former president of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
?We see opportunities with this new program to knit together a global community committed to crop biodiversity that extends beyond CGIAR gene banks and allows funds to be invested more wisely,? said Charlotte Lusty, a scientist with the Trust who is working on? the partnership with the CGIAR gene banks.