Gene banks are critical to preserving the biodiversity needed to develop crops that can cope with climate change, says agricultural scientist M. S. Swaminathan.
Global food systems largely depend on just a few crops such as rice and wheat. But genetic homogeneity leaves them vulnerable to environmental stresses associated with climate change, says Swaminathan.
Conserving genetic variability in these plants is essential, and other crops including millets and tubers that require less irrigation are needed to find genes that can improve tolerance to drought, floods and salinity.
The best way of conserving plants is on farms and in the wild, argues Swaminathan. But such approaches are vulnerable to invasive species, habitat destruction and market factors. So other methods, including gene banks, are needed.
Gene banks can be expensive but the Svalbard Gene Vault — initiated in 2007 by the Norwegian government and the Global Biodiversity Trust — shows they don't have to be. More than four million samples will be preserved near the North Pole without the need for expensive cryogenics (see Global seed vault opens in Norway).
Such initiatives are also needed outside the agrobiodiversity realm, argues Swaminathan. His research foundation in India, for example, is conserving genes from mangrove plants that can tolerate salt water, as a source of genes for drought tolerance.