Guaranteed funding for the world's genebanks is essential to preserve biodiversity and secure food supplies, says Jan Valkoun.
Today (22 May), on International Day of Biodiversity, plant diversity around the world is under threat from modern crop improvement, habitat loss and disasters, both natural and man-made.
Genebanks can conserve rich gene pools and help feed the world, but they must secure continued funding if they are to survive.
Since the beginnings of agriculture some 10,000 years ago farmers have not only grown crops, but also intuitively bred them and produced seed. Indeed, they have long exploited rich genetic diversity to adapt to drought, heat and disease or pest resistance by creating new farmers' varieties, or 'landraces'.
Genetic diversity is conserved in wild relatives that still survive today in 'centres of origin', most of which are located in the developing world.
Landraces and crop wild relatives provide an invaluable source of genetic material for improving crops and securing global food supplies.
Indeed, collection missions — where the seeds of wild relatives and landraces are collected from natural populations, farmers' fields and market places to store in genebanks — have long made biological diversity readily available to modern plant breeders, researchers and farmers.
But both wild relatives and landraces across the globe have been severely eroded over the past 100 years by habitat loss and replacement with improved crop varieties, respectively.
A safety net
Concerns about the rapid loss of indigenous crop genetic diversity in the 1960s–1980s led to a global effort — coordinated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and supported by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and national programs — to collect crop wild relatives and landraces in ex situ genebanks across the world.
According to the FAO, there are now about 1,500 genebanks worldwide — storing 6.5 million plant samples.
These are strategic global assets that provide a safety net against the loss of valuable germplasm.
Wars and natural disasters, for example, can pose major threats to plant collections in some developing countries. Much-needed crop diversity was lost during the wars in Burundi, Cambodia, Rwanda, and Somalia. National genebanks were looted and destroyed during the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
In September 2006, Typhoon Xangsane damaged about 70 per cent of the 46,000 genetic materials stored in the Philippines' National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory genebank.
In such cases, duplicate seed held in ex situ genebanks is crucial to restoring crop diversity in farmers' fields and original collections.
Nearly 700,000 samples of crops, forages and trees are held in CGIAR's genebanks. One of its largest collections — nearly 135,000 samples of cereals and food and forage legumes — is held at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria. This is particularly important because of its focus on crop improvement targeted at low-input and stress-affected farming systems in developing countries.
Some 100,000 of ICARDA's samples originate from Asia and Africa, with over 3,000 from Afghanistan and 1,000 from Iraq. Already, a number of seed samples have been multiplied and sent back to Afghanistan to begin restoring the country's crop diversity. And the centre plans to repatriate complete sets to both countries once adequate facilities for seed storage become available.
A funding gap
But not all genebanks are so well equipped.
The FAO claims a large number are in a state of "rapid deterioration". Some genebanks have closed, others have problems with physical facilities and equipment and many have a large backlog of plant samples that need regenerating.
International treaties and other agreements have attempted to rectify the situation For example, both the FAO Global Plan of Action — adopted by 150 countries in 1996 — and the 2001 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture promote ex situ plant collections to preserve biodiversity.
But such agreements failed to provide the permanent funding needed for their implementation. The CGIAR genebanks have also been constrained by severe budget cuts — funding from the centres' core budget has dropped by 50 per cent since 1994.
Financial support of the world's genebanks must be made a global priority.
In 2004, the Global Crop Diversity Trust was established as an international financial mechanism for ensuring long-term conservation and availability of plant genetic resources.
To this end, it has facilitated the construction of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. The vault, due to be completed in September 2007, is intended to provide the ultimate safety net, capable of storing some three million seed samples. The Global Trust is committed to assisting developing countries prepare and transport seeds to this remote Arctic genebank.
Diverse donors have thus far pledged US$115 million to the Global Trust.
It has taken a lot of time and effort to develop a global framework for conserving plant genetic diversity for the long-term. But for it to ultimately succeed, it is now imperative that the Global Trust generates sufficient funds to support the agreed activities of the global genebank system in perpetuity.
This will require active involvement from governments around the world, CGIAR centres, donors and other major players in crop diversity conservation.
Jan Valkoun was head of the Genetic Resources Unit at ICARDA in Aleppo, Syria from 1989–2006.