Crop Diversity at Risk:
THE CASE FOR SUSTAINING CROP COLLECTIONS
Crop Diversity at Risk:
THE CASE FOR SUSTAINING CROP COLLECTIONS
This report has been prepared by the Department of Agricultural Sciences, Imperial College Wye, UK
in co-operation with colleagues in the international agricultural research community.
AT THE HEART OF AGRICULTURE is human innovation; at the heart of this innovation is the vast
diversity of crops that have been developed by farmers for millennia, and more recently by
scientists as well. Today, much of this diversity is contained in plant collections—stored, nurtured,
and distributed by the world’s crop genebanks. The seeds and other plant material held in these
sanctuaries provide the raw material for breeding crop varieties capable of meeting environmen-
tal challenges and demands for increased yield, improved quality, and greater diversity in the
human diet. Now, new data shows the precarious state of many of these genebanks as well as the
serious disparity between the capacity of collections held in the developing and developed worlds
to serve a conservation function. It reveals that at the same time genebank collections are
growing in size, in the majority of countries, the resources needed to sustain them have remained
stagnant or been reduced.
The data points us to one major conclusion: genebanks can no longer rely on uncertain annual
sources of funding—as most now do—to fulfill their perpetual responsibility for maintaining the
diversity of plants that underpin our food security. They need a major new endowment—a fund
generated by public and private sources—that can support, in perpetuity, this essential work.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that worldwide, about 1 470 genebanks
together maintain more than 5.4 million samples of plants of which perhaps two million are dis-
tinct non-duplicate samples. Key collections hold samples of the world’s major crops for human
food and forages used for to feed livestock. Genebanks also house a host of so-called “minor”
crops that are especially important to farmers in agriculturally marginal lands and to those in
developing countries. Taken as a whole, genebank collections represent a significant share of the
existing agricultural heritage of humankind—the legacy of some 10 000 years of planting,
ploughing and breeding of crops for human use. They contain traditional farmers’ varieties and
modern varieties, as well as wild relatives of domesticated crops.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY iii
Farmers and plant breeders have relied on genebanks to provide them with the crop diversity they three fronts: in the wild, in farmers’ fields, and in the genebanks that are intended to be safe hous-
have used to develop thousands of varieties suited to their particular environments, nutritional es for the future. Even as we work to conserve diversity in the wild and in farmer’s fields, we must
and taste needs. This diversity is the raw material needed to breed plants enriched with protein, secure safe havens removed from the threats posed by human development and modern agri-
iron, and other nutrients; able to resist disease and drought; and to increase yield despite harsh culture.
conditions. This diversity is needed now more than ever: experts predict that crop yields must
roughly double in the next 50 years just to keep up with the growing population. In addition, We know of individual genebanks that have barely averted disaster: when duplicate seed held in
crops must be able to adapt to regional climate changes predicted to accompany a general glob- other lands have been used to replace collections lost in the course of war or natural disaster.
al warming. Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia, and Romania provide a few such examples.We know of other genebanks
that have lost or are at risk of losing portions of their collections: Albania, Fiji, and Nigeria among
In 1996, when the FAO conducted the first systematic assessment of the state of the world’s them. Each out-of-business genebank or compromised collection is like a sunken ship from a fleet
genebanks, it found that a large number were in a state of “rapid deterioration.” It reported that of galleons filled with gold. But unlike the underwater explorations that can raise sunken treasure,
some genebanks had already closed and that others had problems maintaining their physical once a unique collection of seeds is lost, it may be lost forever.
structures and equipment. Perhaps of most concern, there was a large backlog of plant samples
that needed to be regenerated (reproduced) before they lost their viability and thereby their use- Until now, the world community has dealt with genebank crises in an ad hoc manner, stomping
fulness. out fires, one by one. Such an approach cannot work indefinitely. Even some of the world’s largest
genebanks are facing severe budget cuts: the Future Harvest Centres of the Consultative Group
New genebank data, also gathered by FAO, compares the latest available information (collected on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have seen their core funding—the funds which
in 2000) to the 1996 data. It finds that: support the genebanks—drop by 50 percent since 1994. The collections maintained by the
The number of plant samples conserved worldwide has increased in 66 percent of countries Centres house more than one-tenth of the world’s total, with a large concentration of traditional
and remained unchanged in 13 percent. About 6 percent of countries have lost portions of farmers’ varieties.
their collections. (About 15 percent of countries did not respond to this question).
Despite the expansion in the size of collections, genebank budgets have been cut back in Nations around the world have adopted a number of international agreements that recognize the
25 percent of the responding countries and remained static in 35 percent. Budgets improved need to conserve crop diversity and the important role of collections. Among them are the
in 33 percent of countries (7 percent provided no response). Convention on Biological Diversity (signed in 1992), a Global Plan of Action (1996) that lays out
The number of samples in urgent need of regeneration increased or remained unchanged in critical steps for the conservation and use of crop diversity; and the International Treaty for Plant
62 percent of countries. Only 18 percent of countries succeeded in decreasing their regener- Genetic Resources (2001). None of these agreements, however, provides for a perpetual source of
ation needs (20 percent provided no response.) funding. Meanwhile, the discrepancy between goals and implementation grows larger each year.
A closer look at the data shows the disparity between developing countries and countries with We can think of no better economic instrument to meet these commitments and safeguard the
economies in transition on the one hand, and developed countries on the other hand. Some future of a diverse and plentiful food supply than a permanent international endowment. It could
28 percent of developing countries, 33 percent of countries in transition, and 13 percent of devel- both support the maintenance needs of the world's most critical collections and help to build the
oped countries have had genebank budget cutbacks. capacity of under-funded collections. Unless genebanks are able to rely on a stable and ongoing
source of funding, the isolated fires will continue to flare, and eventually threaten a general con-
The issue of regeneration is perhaps even more revealing. Regeneration is a cornerstone of flagration.
genebank activity. It requires monitoring the health and viability of plant samples. Before the
samples lose their ability to germinate, they must be grown out and new seed harvested, a
process that can be fairly straightforward or quite complicated, depending on the plant’s biology.
Regardless, the only way to indefinitely maintain a collection and ensure a ready supply for use
is to periodically regenerate it. The new data show that some 52 percent of developing countries
have increased numbers of samples in need of urgent regeneration as compared to 1996. Among
developed countries, 27 percent reported increased need.
The declining condition of many genebanks does not take place in a vacuum. It comes at a time
when crop diversity in the field is diminishing and the wild relatives of crops are disappearing
under cleared forests and urban sprawl. Therefore, crop genetic diversity today is threatened on
iv C R O P D I V E R S I T Y AT R I S K : T H E C A S E F O R S U S TA I N I N G C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S EXECUTIVE SUMMARY v
Table of Contents
Executive Summary iii
What is Crop Diversity? 3
The Conservation of Crop Diversity 9
International Commitment to Saving Crop Diversity 17
The State of Crop Collections Worldwide 21
ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST VALUABLE RESOURCES is also one of its least recognized. The
great diversity within agricultural crop plants provides the basis upon which farming improvements
depend. This diversity is the source of traits to improve yield and quality, resist disease and adapt
to climate changes.
For many people, the use of agricultural diversity is an important part of their way of life. This is as
true for Andean farmers who grow a wide range of potato varieties as for cosmopolitan consumers
who seek to recapture diversity in their diets, an idea popularized by the ‘Slow Food’ movements
now active in many countries. Today’s crop diversity ensures tomorrow’s food security and the
livelihood and quality of life for billions of people. And it is in jeopardy.
The problem is threefold: decreasing diversity in farmers’ fields; the loss of crop wild relatives in
nature; and the precarious state of the world’s plant diversity collections. Located in more than 150
countries around the world, many of the facilities—known as genebanks—that house these irre-
placeable collections of crop diversity are in disrepair and disarray. Most are under-funded.
Collections may have already been lost and others are in jeopardy. Some genebanks struggle just
to pay the electricity bills for refrigeration of seed.
At the same time, wild relatives of domesticated plants are disappearing as their natural habitats
are destroyed, and the diversity sown in farmers’ fields is dwindling. Genebanks may soon contain
almost 100 percent of the diversity of both tomato and cassava (a starchy root crop), as wild
species continue to disappear from their degraded native environments.1
If the samples held by crop genebanks are allowed to disappear as well, humanity will lose raw mate-
rial that is critical for innovation in farming, and thereby a vital safeguard against widespread hunger.
Although farmers have long recognized the need to conserve crop diversity, today all of society
must also take note and take action, because the world’s food security is in danger.
viii C R O P D I V E R S I T Y AT R I S K : T H E C A S E F O R S U S TA I N I N G C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S INTRODUCTION 1
What is Crop Diversity?
Crop diversity embraces the great variety within and between crops and their wild relatives. Not
only are there hundreds of species of crops—from wheat to carrots to mangoes—but each
species may also have hundreds or thousands of varieties containing subtle yet important genetic
differences. These varieties evolved over thousands of years in a dynamic interaction between
nature and farmers’ careful selection and breeding.
The uses of crop diversity go beyond the production of
food. In many cases crop diversity is at the root of sustain- Crop Diversity
able agriculture and provides environmental benefits.
Farmers have bred tens of thousands of varieties of
Humanity has historically used the wide variety of wild
rice, and Future Harvest scientists and their partners
and cultivated crop plants to meet needs for cloth fibres, have collected more than 1 100 wild rice species.
housing materials and livestock feed. Crops also underpin There are about 200 wild species of potatoes and
many cultural traditions, aesthetic aspirations and medical thousands of named varieties cultivated by farmers.
needs. Even today 80 percent of the world’s people rely on In the Andes, farming communities use about 3 000
herbal cures rather than on pharmacies when they are sick. different varieties of potatoes.
More than 1 000 species of native fruits grow in the
Generations of farmers have enhanced the world’s crop Americas.
In Java, Indonesia, farmers may plant more than 600
diversity. Varieties that have arisen through selection by
crop species in a single home garden
farmers—sometimes called landraces—suit their imme-
diate environments and other preferences. In the last
hundred years, scientific research institutions have con-
Mexican deserts, in the mountainous highlands of the
tributed enormously to the breeding of new crop varieties
Andes and the islands of the Philippines. Different vari-
for improved production and for adaptation to a broad
IPGRI eties of maize may be particularly high in protein or good
range of farming environments.
for making tortillas, grits or flour.
Each crop variety may be adapted to a particular type of
soil, climate and growing season. Its genes may endow it DIVERSITY OF MAJOR AND
with traits needed by farmers: disease resistance, cold or MINOR CROPS
heat tolerance, special taste or nutritional qualities. These In 10 000 years of settled agriculture, men and women
qualities provide farmers and plant breeders with raw have discovered some 50 000 varieties of edible plants.
materials to improve their crops and adapt them to Today, human beings cultivate 7 000 plants for food, and
changing environmental conditions. many more for fibres, medicines and other purposes.4 Yet
just three crops—wheat, rice and maize (corn)—together
For example, farmers have adapted varieties of maize that provide more than half of humanity’s global food supply
flourish in the Brazilian prairies and the northern and are staple foods for four billion people.5
W H AT I S C R O P D I V E R S I T Y ? 3
Although these three crops dominate agriculture, region- farmers grow diverse species in small forest and farm farmers in South Asia and Latin America grow pearl mil- species were not previously well studied. Nonetheless, like
by-region a more complex picture emerges. Bananas and plots. These traditional vegetables have very high nutri- let, which originated in Africa. Citrus, which originated in the growing tide of animal extinctions, the loss of wild
plantains are the developing world’s fourth most impor- tional value and may often be used for their medicinal as Southeast Asia, flourishes in tropical and subtropical crop relatives changes not only the ecosystems in which
tant food. Sorghum, millet, potatoes, sugar cane and well as food benefits. It is essential to conserve the diver- regions across the globe. Soybeans, one of the principal they once flourished but also limits human opportunities
sugar beet, soybean, sweet potatoes, beans and cassava all sity of carefully tended minor crops. crops grown in the United States, originated in China. for the future. Following are a few examples of wild crop
provide much needed calories for millions of the world’s relatives on the way to extinction:
poor.6 For example, cassava supplies over half of the A WORLD FOOD WEB In today’s world then, countries strongly depend on crops
plant-derived energy for Central Africa. In developing Each crop species has at least one centre of diversity—the with foreign origins for their agriculture. This complex Soybean: Wild soybeans could once be found growing
countries, groundnut, pigeon pea, lentils, chickpea and place where the crop’s wild relatives first proliferated and web points to a simple truth: all countries are interde- over almost all of China’s Yellow River Delta and Sanjiang
cowpea (black-eyed peas) are important high-protein humans domesticated the crop. It is particularly in their pendent with regard to crop diversity. Ultimately farmers Plain, but now they are scattered in just a few sites.10
sources of food. historic homes that a crop and its wild relatives continue to around the world are likely to depend upon diversity
co-evolve, creating still more novel genetic combinations. from elsewhere as a source of new genes to maintain the Tomato: Across the South American centre of diversity,
In the Andes Mountains of Peru and Ecuador, native peo- health and productivity of their harvests. But as diversity populations of wild tomato are being severely reduced.
ple have grown dozens of roots and tubers found However, regardless of their places of origin, today’s major is lost from farms and from the wild, as land is ploughed Many are endangered by goat herding in the highlands
nowhere else in the world. In sub-Saharan Africa about crops are bred, grown, and marketed all over the world. or paved, crop genebanks may be the only way to preserve and by habitat loss. One species in Chile is now restricted
1 000 plant species can be eaten as green leafy vegetables. For example, farmers in many African countries grow cas- a genetic legacy evolved over millennia. to about half a dozen populations and open pit copper
Nobody knows how many of these are cultivated, but sava, which originated in Latin America. Meanwhile, mines pose a potential threat to another desert species.
Sprawling shantytowns around Lima, Peru, have elimi-
LOSS OF CROP WILD RELATIVES
nated others. The loss of just one extremely diverse pop-
The world contains an estimated 250 000 species of flow-
ulation can have disproportionate effects.11
REGIONS OF DIVERSITY OF MAJOR CULTIVATED CROPS 7 ering plants, but one in 12 of them (8 percent) now seem
likely to disappear before 2025.8 Of the many factors that
Coffee: A wild species of coffee that once grew in Côte
NORTH AMERICA SOUTHERN SOUTHERN AFRICA WEST ASIA contribute to this extinction crisis, chief among them is
d’Ivoire in West Africa is known to be extinct. Ten others
Sunflower MEDITERRANEAN Finger Millet Pistachio modern agriculture.9 Clearing forests to create farmland
are either endangered or vulnerable in the wild.
Cranberry Oats Pearl Millet Wheat is the cause of most extinctions today. More than 15 mil-
Jerusalem Artichoke Beetroot Sorghum Barley lion hectares of tropical forest are lost each year to agri-
Hard wheat: Triticum monococcum is a species that was
Artichoke Melon Lentil culture and development. Among the losses are the wild
widely grown for bread in the ancient Roman Empire.
CARIBBEAN Olive Pea relatives of domesticated plants and species with as yet
Today it is almost lost, with relic populations existing only
Arrowroot Grape INDIAN OCEAN Fig untapped potential. Such losses are occurring on every
in Turkey, and possibly in Yemen. Because of its high fibre
Date-palm Mascarene Coffee continent and in every region.
content, T. monococcum is again in demand, and a special
CENTRAL AMERICA Banana SOUTH ASIA project has begun to bring back this crop.
Maize EAST AFRICA Rice The loss of crop wild relatives has profound implications
Cassava Sorghum EAST ASIA Kodo Millet for agriculture. Plant breeders and farmers depend on the
Grape: The world’s grape species are threatened in all
Beans Pearl Millet Proso Millet Aubergine wild relatives of crops as an essential source of genes. For
areas of their range. In North America, the grape species
Sweet Pepper Finger Millet Fox Tail Millet Mango example, wild wheats have recently provided domesticated
Vitis rupestris has been grazed to the point of near extinc-
Tef Soybean Black Pepper wheat with genes to resist fungal diseases, drought, cold,
tion. It was once found in gravelly and sandy creek beds
SOUTH AMERICA Pigeon pea Orange and heat. A single sample of wild rice from Central India
from Tennessee to Texas. Seven other North American
Sweet potato Coffee Apricot provided resistance to two of Asia’s main rice diseases.
SOUTHEAST ASIA grape species are also threatened. Scientists believe these
Potato Peach Rice may contain a range of valuable genes, including for
Cassava WEST AFRICA It is difficult to know exactly when a crop’s wild relative
Winged Bean drought tolerance and resistance to the pest root-knot
Beans Sorghum CENTRAL ASIA has completely disappeared. Wild crop species grow as
Pumpkin Yam Wheat (bread, club) distinct populations and each typically has its own dis-
Tomato Cowpea Onion tinct genetic identity and so contributes to the total
Breadfruit LOSS OF CROP DIVERSITY
Cocoa Oil Palm Carrot genetic diversity of the species. The loss of individual
Banana The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization
Faba Bean populations is a form of genetic erosion—a process that
Citrus (FAO) estimates that about three-quarters of the original
EUROPE CENTRAL AFRICA can lead to extinction.
varieties of agricultural crops have been lost from farm
Brassica spp Yam PACIFIC fields since 1900.13 And this trend has accelerated in the
Forage species Kenaf Sugar Cane WILD CROP RELATIVES NEARING last half century.
Apple Coffee (robusta) Coconut
The negative impacts resulting from the loss of wild The intensification of agriculture often means less, not
species are hard to measure, since in most cases lost more, crop diversity. Although modern plant breeders
4 C R O P D I V E R S I T Y AT R I S K : T H E C A S E F O R S U S TA I N I N G C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S W H AT I S C R O P D I V E R S I T Y ? 5
have made considerable use of the genetic diversity pres- early 1900s in India and Java. This narrow genetic base
THE WORLD’S TOP CROPS FOR FOOD ENERGY
ent in landraces to create high-yielding modern varieties, puts sugarcane cultivation at risk from several diseases,
the widespread use of these new varieties has replaced including rust, smut, and eyespot and has resulted in a
many of the older ones. yield plateau.18 NAME OF CROP PERCENT OF WORLD
FOOD ENERGY PROVIDED
Since the Green Revolution was launched in the 1960s, The world’s crop landraces and their wild relatives, with
farmers have increasingly abandoned their traditional their huge genetic variation, are dwindling fast. Like wild
landraces of wheat, rice and other crops in favor of high- plants and animals, agricultural diversity is in decline.
yielding new seeds. By the 1990s, adoption of modern
varieties of wheat, rice and maize in developing countries WHY CROP DIVERSITY MATTERS Maize 7%
had reached 90, 70 and 60 percent respectively.14 In China Diversity occurs in two main forms: diversity among Millet and Sorghum 4%
farmers grew nearly 10 000 wheat varieties in 1949. By the crops and diversity within a crop. Both are essential. Soybean Oil 3%
1970s only about 1000 varieties remained in use.15 Today, Although just fifteen food crops now provide 90 percent Potatoes 2%
wheat landraces are extensively cultivated only in isolated of the world’s food energy intake, a much wider diversity Sweet Potatoes 2%
patches of the drier production zones of West Asia-North is needed to meet human nutritional needs.19 Scientists
Other Vegetable Oils 6%
Africa and in the highlands of Ethiopia.16 have focused their crop-improvement efforts on a hand-
ful of key species in an effort to produce enough food for
A wide range of crops—from broccoli to sugarcane—is the rapidly growing human population. But this focus has
following a similar trend. In the United States less than come at the cost of many more so-called “minor” crops, tory and cultural identity of the communities that have
five hybrid broccoli plants account for 80 to 90 percent of which are often better adapted to harsh environments— grown them for centuries.28
the broccoli crop, and one hybrid, ‘Marathon,’ accounts such as poor, salty soils and arid climate—and to the
for more than 50 percent of acreage.17 Most sugarcane needs of their cultivators. Therefore, minor crops both Diversity within a crop comes from its many varieties,
cultivars in the world today were derived from crosses meet nutritional needs and generate income for local each with its own unique complement of genes.
made with only a few clones selected in the late 1800s and communities. These crops are often closely tied to the his- Dependence on too few varieties is dangerous because
disease or pests can spread rapidly through a genetically
uniform crop. In the 1840s, Irish farming was primed for
Gone From Farmers’ Fields disaster: it relied on one crop—potato—with a narrow
genetic base and a susceptibility to late blight. When a vir-
IN THE COURSE OF THE 20TH CENTURY, farmers grew a shrinking array of crop varieties. Here are a few examples: ulent pathogen strain entered Irish potato fields, it spread
like wildfire. The famine that followed claimed one mil-
COLLARD PISTACHIO lion lives and forced the emigration of another million of
This crop—a regionally important leafy green vegetable— Farmers throughout Central and West Asia and North the country’s population.
originated in the southeastern United States and scientists Africa cultivate pistachio nuts. Hardy wild relatives of the
project that its still surviving landraces will be lost domesticated trees help conserve ecosystems prone to Finally, in today’s world, crop diversity is an essential
in another generation due to development and the drought and provide a source of pest and disease resist- insurance policy against unforeseen changes, from the
migration of farmers and rural populations to larger ance for cultivated varieties. However, pistachio’s broad natural disasters caused by unpredictable climates to the
cities. genetic base is being lost as a few high-yielding commer- devastation of war.
cial types replace ancient varieties, and human activity
destroys wild species.
In Mexico, between the 1930s and today, farmers
have lost about 80 percent of their traditional maize vari- RICE
eties. Between 1910 and 1920 in Taiwan, the number of lan-
draces of rice dropped from 1200 to approximately 400 as
a result of a campaign against rice diversity. Since then
There are over a thousand documented pecan nut culti- 24
numbers have fallen even more dramatically. In
vated varieties, but over half of the acreage sown to
Bangladesh, the promotion of high yield rice has led to
pecans worldwide is composed of only four varieties. 25
losses of 7000 traditional rice varieties.
Given this narrow genetic base and a steadily shrinking
native acreage, scientists say the diversity of this crop is at SOYBEAN
risk. In the United States, about one quarter of the genetic
diversity base of the soybean crop was lost between 1947
6 C R O P D I V E R S I T Y AT R I S K : T H E C A S E F O R S U S TA I N I N G C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S W H AT I S C R O P D I V E R S I T Y ? 7
The Conservation of
To meet the need for improved agriculture and crops, farmers and plant breeders must make
better use of the world’s crop diversity. But they can only do so if this diversity is conserved.
Such conservation takes two main forms: ex situ—in crop genebanks,
and in situ—in nature, including on farms.
While the two forms complement each other, strong needs. In these and other ways, it is possible to support
genebank collections are increasingly essential as a stable farmers’ efforts to improve their livelihoods while still
reservoir of diversity for research by scientists seeking to nurturing diversity.
meet the world’s food and agriculture challenges.
ON-FARM CONSERVATION On-farm conservation can:
In traditional agriculture, by choice or by necessity, farm- Maintain the processes of evolution and adaptation of
ers grow a diversity of crops and varieties that help spread crops to their environments
the risk of environmental threats, such as disease or Conserve diversity at different levels—ecosystem,
drought. In their fields, farmers maintain and continue to species, within species
improve the traditional crop varieties they have devel- Ensure farmers’ efforts are an integral part of nation-
oped. The choice to grow a mix of crops is influenced by al plant genetic resources systems
social and cultural, as well as economic and environmen- Conserve ecosystem services critical to the function-
ing of the Earth's life-support system
tal considerations. On the one hand, particular varieties
Improve the livelihoods of resource-poor farmers
may be associated with cultural and religious uses. On the
through economic and social development
other hand, diversity can be especially important to farm- Maintain or increase farmers' control over and access
ers in marginal areas and subsistence farmers who have no to crop genetic resources
money in the bank to see them through a harvest failure.
Increasingly, national agricultural programmes are recog- CROP GENEBANKS
nizing the need to support on-farm conservation. Crop genebanks store, maintain and reproduce living
National programmes and genebanks can help provide samples of the world’s huge diversity of crop varieties and
farmers with access to new and diverse materials while their wild relatives. They are safe houses to ensure that the
learning from farmers about the nature and management varieties and landraces of the crops that underpin our
of their crop diversity. Such cooperative efforts can be food supply are both secure and available for use by farm-
used to shape farming practices that improve ecosystem ers, plant breeders and researchers. Genebanks are a reser-
health through the use of local crop diversity. They can voir of traits for resistance to diseases and pests, to cli-
also help breeders to improve varieties for marginal envi- matic and other environmental stresses, and thus hold the
ronments and to link breeding efforts with farmers’ key to improving the quality and yield of crops. Some of
T H E C O N S E R VAT I O N O F C R O P D I V E R S I T Y 9
the plant varieties held in genebanks are now extinct in and 19th centuries as science and colonialism advanced in preserving humanity’s agricultural heritage. As Russians collections. Medicinal, spice, aromatic and ornamental
farmers’ fields and in nature; others are threatened with parallel. battled Hitler’s army during the siege of Stalingrad, nine species were rare in long-term publicly held collections.
extinction. As deforestation and habitat loss wipe out scientists at the Institute chose to starve to death rather
wild crop relatives, and farmers give up traditional crop The greatest pioneer of the modern era was the Russian than reveal the whereabouts of the irreplaceable crop WHAT DO GENEBANKS DO?
varieties, genebanks become the custodians of the crops academician Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943). In diversity under their care. In one case, the chief rice col- Plant genebanks collect, conserve, document and distrib-
that humankind has nurtured for centuries. Ideally, 1918 he discovered a variety of wheat that grew at an alti- lector was found starved to death amidst several thousand ute plant genetic materials to researchers, breeders, farm-
genebanks act as vital centres of conservation, working tude of 914 m (3000 ft) and was resistant to rust and packs of rice seed that he had refused to eat. ers and other users. A cornerstone of genebank opera-
with governments, farmers and others to use what is con- mildew. Excited by his findings on the genetic variation of tions is the reproduction—called regeneration—of its
served and to conserve what is left in nature. wheat, Vavilov attempted to trace the geographic origin of Outstanding among those who picked up Vavilov’s baton plant material. Plant samples must periodically be grown
various crops by locating their areas of greatest species was the Austrian-born Sir Otto Frankel (1900-1999). out, regenerated, and new seed harvested because, even
Genebank collections may include seeds stored at low diversity. In a series of extraordinary and often intrepid Frankel truly bridged the generations: he knew Vavilov from
humidity and low temperature, plantlets cultured in test expeditions mainly between 1916 and 1933, Vavilov and the 1930s, and in the 1970s was a key figure in the creation
tubes (in vitro conservation) and whole plants grown in of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural FUTURE HARVEST GENEBANK COLLECTIONS
his many disciples collected more than 250 000 plant
special protected fields (field genebanks). Research (CGIAR), which now supports a network of 16 HELD IN-TRUST FOR THE WORLD
accessions from around the world. Although Vavilov fell
foul of the Stalin regime and was banished to Siberia international Future Harvest Research Centres, 11 of which COMMUNITY BASED ON AGREEMENTS
A SHORT HISTORY OF PLANT where he died in a Soviet labor camp, his name has long hold significant collections of crop diversity. WITH FAO (2002)
GENEBANKS been honored in the N I Vavilov Institute of Plant
CENTRE CROP NUMBER OF
It is impossible to say exactly when the world’s crop diver- Industry (VIR), St Petersburg. GENEBANKS AROUND THE WORLD ACCESSIONS
sity collections began to be amassed: people have been FAO reports that there are about 1 470 genebanks world-
CIAT Cassava 5 728
collecting and conserving plants in botanic gardens for During World War II, the Vavilov Institute became an wide that together maintain more than 5.4 million samples
Forages 18 138
hundreds of years. There was huge activity in the 18th inspiring example of the deep dedication of scientists to of plants (although many are duplicates, so the total num-
Bean 31 718
ber of distinct samples is probably less than two million).29
CIMMYT Maize 20 411
The Future Harvest Centres of the Consultative Group The majority of genebanks are government operated.
Wheat 95 113
CIP Andean roots and tubers 1 112
on International Agricultural Research National and regional genebanks conserve crops of greatest
Sweet potato 6 413
importance to the food security and economic stability of
Potato 5 057
CREATED IN 1971, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is an association of public and private the nation or region concerned. International genebanks,
ICARDA Barley 24 218
members that support the 16 Future Harvest Centres. The Centres comprise a comprehensive system, the largest in the world, such as those in the Future Harvest Centres hold crops
Chickpea 9 116
devoted primarily to research and the development of agriculture in developing nations. To increase food security and eradicate grown mainly by poor farmers (such as cassava, millet and
Faba bean 9 074
poverty the Centres are engaged in research, creative partnerships, capacity building, and policy support. The CGIAR approaches its cowpea), staple food crops grown worldwide (such as
Wheat 30 270
mission based on the promotion of environmentally sustainable agriculture and the sound management of natural resources. wheat and rice) and forage crops for livestock.
Forages 24 581
Lentil 7 827
Initially sponsored by the World Bank, FAO, and the United set up in 1994 to, among other things, enhance the efficien- More than a third of the world’s total holdings are stored
ICRAF Sesbania 25
Nations Development Programme, today the CGIAR has 58 cy and responsiveness of Centre genebanks. in 15 national genebanks. The world’s 15 largest national
ICRISAT Chickpea 16 961
funding members: countries, foundations and regional and genebanks are in China, the United States of America, the
Today, eleven Future Harvest Centres operate genebanks that Groundnut 14 357
international organizations. The CGIAR began with pro- Russian Federation, Japan, India, the Republic of Korea,
between them hold nearly 667 000 samples of crops, more than Pearl millet 21 250
grammes to increase the productivity of key foods in devel- Canada, Brazil, Italy, Ethiopia, Hungary, Poland, the
one-tenth of the world’s total. Some 532 000 of these samples Pigeon pea 12 698
oping countries (rice, wheat, maize, cassava and pastures). Philippines and at two national centres in Germany.
are held in trust for the world community under agreements Sorghum 35 780
Today, more than 8 500 CGIAR scientists and scientific staff
with the FAO. The majority of the samples held in the Future Minor millets 9 050
carry out research not only on major food crops, but also on The major regional genebanks are the Tropical Agricultural
Harvest genebanks consists of farmers’ varieties developed to IITA Bambara groundnut 2 029
neglected and underused crops, as well as livestock, fish, trees Research and Higher Education Centre in Costa Rica, the
meet specific environmental, nutritional and food security needs Cassava 2 158
for forestry and agroforestry, and the development of envi- Asian Vegetable Research and Development Centre in
and of wild relatives of domesticated crops. Cowpea 15 001
ronmentally beneficial farming systems. Taiwan, the Nordic Gene Bank in Sweden, the Southern
Soybean 1 909
The Centres’ collections for the most part meet the highest African Development Community Plant Genetic
All of the benefits of this research are in the public domain, Wild Vigna 1 634
international standards of genebank management set by Resources Centre in Zambia and the Arab Centre for the
freely available to everyone. Yam 2 878
FAO, although a few Centres have not been able to secure Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands in Syria.
ILRI Forages 11 537
One Future Harvest Centre, the International Plant Genetic the funding required to achieve this status. The costs of
IPGRI Musa 931
Resources Institute (IPGRI), was established in 1974 specifi- maintaining the collections and distributing materials are In 1996, FAO reported that over 40 percent of overall
IRRI Rice 80 617
cally to stem the loss of plant diversity. IPGRI leads the largely borne by core funding that, for all Centres, has fallen genebank holdings consisted of cereals; legumes account-
WARDA Rice 14 917
CGIAR’s System-wide Genetic Resources Programme (SGRP), by 50 percent since 1994. ed for 15 percent; vegetables, roots and tubers, fruits and
forages each accounted for less than 10 percent of global TOTAL 532 508
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under the best of conservation conditions, samples will
eventually die. Value of duplication SINGER: The System-wide Information Network for Genetic Resources
Fundamental to the work of genebanks is the careful IN 1987-1988, the West African Rice Development THE FUTURE HARVEST CENTRES have created a collective database that allows cross-searching of some 530 000 genebank
description of plant samples, keeping them disease free, Association (WARDA), a Future Harvest Centre, lost its rice samples held in trust by the Centres. It contains data on each sample’s identity, source, characteristics and distribution.
and ensuring that samples retain their genetic integrity, collection during civil strife in Monrovia, Liberia. Eighty
percent of the samples were replaced by duplicates stored The plant breeding community is increasing its use of assists with the implementation of crop–and region–based
remaining uncontaminated from contact with other
at two other Future Harvest Centres. Since then, a newly SINGER, which is receiving more than 10 000 queries a information networking. For example, the International
species or varieties.
resuscitated collection at WARDA has restored 1075 sam- month. The SINGER model and the expertise, tools and infra- Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), the
ples of rice to six West African countries. structure of the network are available to assist others to International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry
COLLECT establish their own information networks. For example, Areas (ICARDA) and the International Potato Centre (CIP) are
To ensure that they will be available when needed and to
SINGER has been contracted to implement the European taking the lead in creating networks amongst holders of
safeguard diversity at risk in nature, scientists seek to
through periodic inspection of plants and cleaning the catalogue of crop genetic resources collections (EURISCO) major collections of wheat, barley and sweet potato world-
gather a good representation of the gene pool of a target
collections of diseases and pests. and has been requested to assist with the development of an wide, respectively. By complementing crop-specific networks
species. Collecting takes place in farmers’ fields, local
Internet-based information system for the Asian Vegetable with the development of multi-crop networks among
markets, remote places where the crops’ wild ancestors
REGENERATE Research and Development Centre (AVRDC). national and other organizations within a given region,
and relatives grow, and through exchange with botanic
Plant samples deteriorate at different rates, so genebank SINGER aims to be a major player in supporting a global
gardens and other scientific and commercial institutions. In contributing to the development of a global information
workers must routinely test samples to identify the ones that information system for plant genetic resources.
system for plant genetic resources, SINGER promotes and
need regeneration. To regenerate samples, conserved seed
and in vitro plantlets need to be planted and grown out, and
Genebanks must actively conserve their collections. The
new seed harvested. This fresh stock is then fully viable (able
conservation method used depends on the biology of the
to germinate). Regeneration is also necessary to replenish over the world for their use in research and crop improve- CROP IMPROVEMENT
stocks to meet demand by farmers, breeders and other users ment. These samples are used to develop higher yielding, Modern varieties of staple crops rely on accessible diver-
of the collections. In the course of regeneration, the plants better adapted crop varieties. sity. Wheat provides a particularly good example.
Many food crops, including the most common—wheat,
need to be cultivated carefully and in environments to Sonalika is one of the best-known wheats ever released in
rice, and maize—produce seed that if dried, and kept dry
which they are well adapted. In the case of cross-pollinated The eleven Future Harvest genebanks alone have distrib- developing countries. To develop this variety, CIMMYT
and cold, can remain viable for many years. Typically this
species, such as maize, they must be isolated from any for- uted more than a million plant samples directly to users breeders used landraces from about 17 countries and
means placing the dried seed in sealed jars or packets and
eign pollen that may alter their genetic makeup. worldwide since the 1980s. On average, they distribute breeding lines from 14 countries. All were sourced from
storing them for 20 to 30 years at temperatures of -5
about 100 000 samples a year, about 80 percent of which
degrees C. Seeds in long-term storage for up to 100 years
DOCUMENTATION go to developing countries.
are kept at even lower temperatures.
The documentation of crop diversity collections begins Cassava: Distribution for
Regional and national genebanks also play an important
Some plant species have short-lived seeds that are sensi- with recording important data when botanists first collect Development
the plant material. This “passport data” includes basic role in distributing crop genetic resources. The Asian
tive to drying and cooling, and are more difficult and
information on where, when, and what was collected. But Vegetable Research and Development Centre, for exam- 20 AFRICAN COUNTRIES together produce 90 percent of
expensive to maintain. To a large extent, conservation of
to be of real use, each sample needs further documenta- ple, has distributed some 300 000 samples to 180 coun- the cassava in sub-Saharan Africa. Between 1970 and 1998,
these species must be individually tailored to their needs.
tion. Especially important is a careful description of each tries around the world.31 The United States National the national agricultural research systems in these countries
sample’s special characteristics that are inherited, easy to Centre for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort released 206 cassava varieties. Most of these were devel-
A number of crops are propagated vegetatively—by
score, and expressed consistently in all environments. Collins, Colorado, distributed 3 800 accessions to 18 oped using material from the genebank at the International
tubers, roots and cuttings. These are stored either as
countries in the year 2000.32 Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria (IITA).
whole plants grown in field genebanks or in vitro—as
plantlets in test tubes. They include many important Evaluation data goes deeper than characterization.
It is critical that all distributed material be healthy; By 1998, improved varieties were planted on more than one-
species such as potato, sweet potato, banana, cassava and Analysis of traits—such as drought or pest resistance—
diseased material can spread infection across borders and fifth of the land devoted to this crop, and resulted in a 49 per-
yam. are important to plant breeders and researchers but not
into other collections. cent yield increase. The additional production of fresh storage
necessarily visible to the naked eye. Such evaluation may
roots was more than 10 million tons per year, the equivalent
Finally, it is becoming more common to store cells for use DNA-based methods to analyze a plant’s genetic
of 2 200 kcal per person per day for 14 million people.
long and even indefinite periods by ‘cryopreservation’: make-up. All of this data must be easily accessible, and HOW AGRICULTURE USES CROP
freezing in liquid nitrogen, at -196 degrees C. ideally stored on computer databases and incorporated DIVERSITY COLLECTIONS The IITA samples conferred traits that include resistance to
into crop-specific networks of information. Because genebanks represent a repository of potentially pests and diseases such as cassava green mite and cassava
To ensure the safety of the collections, genebanks must useful genes for the future well being of agriculture, they mealybug. Other important traits affected mealyness, stor-
create duplicate back-up collections for safe storage in a DISTRIBUTION are invaluable to humanity. Today the crop diversity col- age root dry matter and low storage root cyanide content.
separate location. In addition it is important for Genebanks distribute samples from their collections lections stored in the world’s genebanks are in higher The released varieties were adapted to a wide range of
genebank workers to maintain the health of collections upon request from scientists, breeders, and farmers all demand than ever before. African ecologies.33
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the in-trust collection. Six continents contributed to just
one small section of Sonalika’s pedigree. Two East Asian Soybean in Nigeria Seeds of Peace in Rwanda
landraces provided the dwarfing genes that made wheat
THE INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE of Tropical Agriculture
plants shorter, helping to create the semidwarf wheat WAR BROKE OUT IN RWANDA in April 1994. Eight hundred thousand people died in a few months and another two million
(IITA) developed soybean varieties well adapted to local
varieties that have dramatically improved wheat yields were displaced, mainly to neighboring countries.
growing conditions in Nigeria. This led to the development
over the past 30 years.
of a new food processing industry that includes about 140 Logic suggested that the country’s agriculture would be dev- bute suitable seed. Another key activity was to identify the
food products and employs some 47 000 people. In one astated as well. It was feared that less than 30 percent of the most acute problems and appropriate actions needed and to
Of the more than 1 000 spring bread wheat varieties released
Nigerian state, 35 percent of the hospitals are using soy- crops that had been planted would be harvested. Relief agen- understand how the farmers coped. This knowledge would
in developing countries from 1966 to 1996, the number of
bean products to reduce malnutrition. cies anticipated an immediate and serious shortage of food, provide valuable information that could be applied in future
distinct landrace ancestors per pedigree has increased signif-
which could force people to eat the seed that otherwise comparable situations. The distribution of seed was impor-
icantly over time. This conscious use of diversity has
would be saved for planting. In the longer term, it was feared tant, but studies also revealed how resourceful farmers were
improved the yield stability of wheat, decreased the amount ments to repair and restore the agriculture of nations
that supplies of local varieties might be compromised. with their own seed stocks, in spite of the disruption of war.
of nitrogen fertilizer needed, and increased the crop’s resist- wracked with conflict and war or by natural disasters.
ance to disease and tolerance to heat and drought.34 Agriculture is the backbone of the Rwandan economy: A nationwide survey of more than 1 200 households in 1996
Genebanks have come to the aid of countries ravaged by Ninety per cent of the people live directly off the land. Prior revealed that in the first season after the war, 45 per cent of
There are countless examples of the use of diversity in war: Rwanda, Angola, Somalia, and Sudan in Africa, to the war, workers at national, regional and international the beans and 25 per cent of the maize sown came from the
crop improvement. For instance, researchers and plant Cambodia and in East Timor in Asia. In Honduras and genebanks knew the astonishing complexities of Rwanda’s farmers’ own stocks. Over a range of crops, there was little
breeders have made extensive use of genebank samples Nicaragua, genebanks restored seed and agriculture in the farming, which for example include 600 varieties of beans. significant loss of indigenous germplasm, even among the
for tomato breeding. Resistance to 42 major diseases has aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. In each case, genebanks Researchers also knew how to obtain many types of diverse beans and sorghum.
been reported in world collections and resistance to 23 of have proved themselves essential players, giving extra focus Rwandan seed—of beans, sweet potatoes, cassava, sorghum
these diseases has been incorporated into adapted culti- and precision to relief operations, and providing necessary and maize—both from regional and international sources. In However, channels for receiving improved varieties were inter-
vars. Genebank collections are the primary source of components for the re-emergence of agriculture. the relief operations after the war, all of this experience rupted. Such seed came from government seed services, devel-
resistance to new diseases or new strains of existing dis- proved invaluable. opment projects or from non-governmental organizations.Worst
eases that appear on a regular basis in tomato fields.35 ENVIRONMENTAL RENEWAL hit of all was the supply of ‘clean’ (disease free) potato seed.
The Seeds of Hope Initiative (SOH-Rwanda) was launched in
Genebanks are important sources of diversity to cope 1995: a unique consortium of the national agricultural The study enabled the Seeds of Hope participants to re-align
with dramatic, human induced changes in agricultural
FOOD SECURITY AND LIVELIHOODS research systems of neighboring countries, including Burundi, their endeavors. Notably, they had planned to multiply local
environments. For instance, irrigation has enabled a dra- Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire (now Democratic varieties, and distribute them to farmers. Instead, emphasis
Experts predict that crop output must roughly double in
matic increase in food production, but it has also caused
the next 50 years just to keep up with rising population.36 Republic of Congo), several Future Harvest Centres, UN agen- switched to the multiplication and supply of clean potato
the salination of about 20 percent of the world’s irrigated cies and NGOs. A crucial endeavor was to obtain and distri seed, as the formal sector had collapsed completely.
The effort to feed the world’s growing population is
land; nearly two million hectares are lost to excessive salt
already exhausting arable land, depleting soil and water
each year. At the same time, some of the world’s best top-
resources, and deforesting large tracts of land. So the
soils are disappearing in the wind and in the rivers. FAO
future of increased production rests with increasing yield ing seasons for maize, wheat and other crops in some borers, and armyworms. Simulations suggest that a tem-
estimates that 140 million hectares of high quality soil
rather than putting more land under the plough. Such regions of the world. Shorter growing seasons will call for perature increase of 2-4 degrees C in the tropics and sub-
will be degraded by 2010, mostly in Asia and Africa.
yield increases depend upon new highly productive vari- varieties that mature more rapidly without sacrificing tropics will considerably increase the losses to insect pests
eties that in turn depend on the availability of a diverse yields. Other areas may experience a greater incidence and that consume stored grain. So maize and wheat varieties
Genebanks can provide farmers with the means to pro-
genetic pool. intensity of drought and high temperatures (e.g. in many that resist these plagues will become even more important
duce new varieties capable of yielding well under such
areas of sub-Saharan Africa) and a greater risk of flooding as conditions get hotter.39
harsh conditions. In addition, the restoration of soils and
At the same time, over one billion people live in farm (e.g., in parts of Asia) where farmers will need varieties that
water requires crops that use less water and are less
families, growing their own food and earning their liveli- survive very wet, waterlogged conditions.37 In a future of extreme climates, to avoid losing their liveli-
dependent on fertilizer and other agrochemicals. For
hoods through farming. For many of these people, agri- hoods, farmers will need varieties that are versatile and
example, a new variety of sorghum increased yield by 85
culture represents a way out of poverty. The ability to While the overall climate trend is toward higher temper- able to thrive under a wide range of conditions.
percent during the height of a drought in northern
improve crop yields and to meet consumer demand for atures, some parts of the world may grow colder, chal-
Cameroon. This was achieved without the use of irriga-
specific qualities in taste, nutrition, or texture may make lenging crops with unexpected frosts. Portugal is carrying
tion or fertilizers. And CIMMYT has produced experi-
the difference between a life of subsistence farming and out a programme to develop cold-tolerant varieties of
mental varieties of wheat and corn that produce more
earning income needed to send children to school or to coffee in co-operation with the International Centre for
grain with less water.
invest in farm improvement. Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).38
DISASTER AND RECOVERY CLIMATE CHANGE Climate change may also increase the incidence and evo-
Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, Genebanks provide farmers with essential tools to cope lution of diseases and pests. It already appears that as sub-
genebanks have increasingly taken on roles not originally with climate change and with new, invasive pests and dis- tropical climates warm, agriculture is experiencing stress-
envisaged: working alongside relief agencies and govern- eases. For instance, changing climate may reduce the grow- es that are typically tropical, such as certain diseases, corn
14 C R O P D I V E R S I T Y AT R I S K : T H E C A S E F O R S U S TA I N I N G C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S T H E C O N S E R VAT I O N O F C R O P D I V E R S I T Y 15
International Commitment to
Saving Crop Diversity
When the international community first began to talk seriously about genetic resources in the
1960s and 1970s, it was taken as self-evident that the world should share its genetic resources
freely as the common heritage of humanity. When it comes to plant genetic resources,
the peoples of the world are utterly interdependent; a true globalism is part of the
heritage of modern crops and the economies based on them.
This spirit underpinned the first discussions in FAO on Summit at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Over 150 governments
genetic resources in the 1960s and persisted through the signed the legally binding treaty at the Rio conference, and
1980s. Its basic tenets were modified only by a broad since then more than 175 countries have ratified the agree-
recognition of plant breeders’ rights: the payment of roy- ment. The Convention has three main goals: the conserva-
alties to those who develop clearly identifiable, new vari- tion of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its com-
eties that others want to grow. By the late 1980s, the con- ponents, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits
cept of farmers’ rights, defined as the “rights arising from arising from the use of biological resources.
the past, present and future contributions of farmers in
conserving, improving, and making available plant genet- The Convention acknowledges that conservation is a
ic resources, particularly those in the centres of common concern for all humanity, and it links conserva-
origin/diversity,” began to gain support40. tion efforts to the goal of the sustainable use of biodiver-
sity for the benefit of human beings. It obliges countries
But in the 1990s, this basic vision began to shift as greater to facilitate access to biological resources within their own
recognition of the value of agricultural biodiversity led to borders. But the Convention also acknowledges that
growing concerns about ownership and benefit sharing. A countries have a right to regard biological resources and
number of international instruments governing the con- the genes they contain as a national resource over which
servation and use of biodiversity have been adopted over they have sovereignty. It sets out principles for the fair
the past decade; all of them reflect this shift in vision. And sharing of benefits arising from the use of biological
IRRI while these conventions, treaties and agreements—the resources, particularly in commercial applications. Those
most critical of which are described below—have been who seek access to biological resources must gain prior
hotly negotiated in political fora and themselves give rise informed consent, on terms that are mutually agreed.
to significant policy issues, they have also provided a pol-
icy framework for global programmes and plans related The Convention acknowledges that substantial invest-
to agricultural biodiversity. ments are required to accomplish its goals.
CONVENTIONS, TREATIES AND International Treaty on Plant
AGREEMENTS Genetic Resources
Convention on Biological Diversity The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for
The Convention on Biological Diversity was one of the key Food and Agriculture was adopted by the member states
agreements reached by world leaders at the 1992 Earth of FAO on 3 November 2001.
I N T E R N AT I O N A L C O M M I T M E N T TO S AV I N G C R O P D I V E R S I T Y 17
The International Treaty represents a significant effort to tions by means of a standard material transfer agreement The Global Plan comprises twenty priority activities, cov- first to explicitly recognize the importance of conserving
open up access to crop diversity and to ensure that bene- approved by the FAO. These agreements accompany sam- ering in situ and ex situ conservation, plant genetic the diversity of plant life on Earth in all its forms, inde-
fits are shared equitably. By agreeing to share their ples sent out by the Centres and establish conditions for resources use and institution and capacity building. pendently of use-oriented considerations like forestry or
resources through the creation of a multilateral exchange their use. All further recipients of in-trust materials are agriculture. The Strategy sets global targets to be met by
system, governments created a new structure for the com- bound by the same terms. Four of the twenty activities relate specifically to ex situ the year 2010—a risk not often taken in international fora
mon good of humanity. conservation: and a first for the Convention.
The International Treaty invites the Centres to enter into
Activity 5. Sustaining Existing Ex Situ Collections
The Treaty, which is in harmony with the Convention on new in-trust agreements with the Treaty’s Governing The targets of the Global Strategy relevant to ex situ con-
Activity 6. Regenerating Threatened Ex Situ Accessions
Biological Diversity, will enter into force once it has been Body. It is envisaged that these agreements, unlike the servation are:
Activity 7. Supporting Planned and Targeted Collect-
ratified by 40 countries, a process that is expected to take previous agreements, would operate in perpetuity. New
ing of Plant Genetic Resources Understanding and documenting plant diversity
up to two years. material transfer agreements will also need to be drafted
Activity 8. Expanding Ex Situ Conservation Activities 1. A preliminary assessment of the conservation status
of all known plant species, at national, regional and
It envisages a multilateral system to facilitate access to key
One hundred and fifty countries formally adopted the international levels.
crop resources with minimal procedural and administra- The Treaty calls for a strategy to mobilize funding for pri-
Global Plan of Action at the Leipzig Conference. In so 2. Development of models with protocols for plant con-
tive costs. Initially the system applies to 35 food crops and ority activities, plans and Programmes – including those
doing, governments also adopted the Leipzig Declaration, servation and sustainable use, based on research and
some 80 forages. The listed species cover most of the described in the Global Plan of Action.
through which they committed themselves to implement- practical experience.
crops that are important for world food security and that
are maintained in the Future Harvest Centres; exceptions ing the Global Plan. The FAO Commission monitors this
GLOBAL PROGRAMMES AND PLANS Conserving plant diversity
include Glycine (soybean), Arachis (peanut) and some implementation, and is committed to periodic updating
The Global Plan of Action 1. 60 percent of threatened plant species, in accessible
tropical forages. The Treaty invites all holders of plant of the Global Plan.
While these conventions and treaties identified the need ex situ collections, preferably in their country of ori-
genetic resources on the list to join the multilateral sys- for plant genetic resource conservation, nations required gin, and 10 per cent of them included in recovery and
tem. The list itself can be changed with the consensus of The Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and
a practical plan of action. To develop such a plan, FAO restoration programmes.
the parties to the Treaty. Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and
organized a technical conference held in Leipzig, 2. 70 percent of the genetic diversity of crops and other
Agriculture (FAO, 1996) is retrievable from http://www.
Germany in 1996. major socio-economically valuable plant species con-
The Treaty envisages a mechanism for sharing benefits fao.org/WAICENT/FAOINFO/AGRICULT/AGP/AGPS/
served, and associated local and indigenous knowl-
whereby the ‘owners’ of a commercialized product that Pgrfa/gpaeng.htm
In preparation for the conference, 158 governments com- edge maintained.
incorporates material obtained from the multilateral sys- piled country reports, assessing the status of their plant
Promoting education and awareness about
tem will pay a royalty into a specially designated fund. genetic resources, and their capacity to conserve and use FURTHER INITIATIVES
The payment is mandatory if the product is not available them. FAO’s first Report on the State of the World’s Plant The governing body of the Convention on Biological
1. The importance of plant diversity and the need for its
for further research and breeding as a result of the appli- Genetic Resources was largely based on this information. Diversity (known as the Conference of the Parties) has
conservation incorporated into communication, edu-
cation of intellectual property rights. It is voluntary when The Report analyzed the status of the conservation and established a work programme specifically concerned with
cation and public awareness programmes.
the product can be freely used for breeding and research. use of plant genetic resources around the world and the maintenance and use of agricultural biodiversity.
The Treaty clearly envisages that benefits will flow prima- described activities and programmes carried out by Building capacity for the conservation
rily to farmers in developing countries. regional, international and non-governmental organiza- The work programme seeks to provide a comprehensive of plant diversity
tions. It identified gaps, constraints and emergency situa- analysis of the status and trends of the world's agricul- 1. The number of trained people working with appro-
FAO-CGIAR In-Trust Agreements tions. The Report warned of a large-scale loss of plant tural biodiversity, as well as the status and trends of priate facilities in plant conservation increased,
In 1994, the Future Harvest Centres of the CGIAR signed genetic resources of importance to food and agriculture, local knowledge concerning the management of that according to national needs, to achieve the targets of
agreements with FAO, placing the collections in their citing the spread of modern, commercial agriculture and diversity. It works to identify and promote management this strategy.
genebanks under the auspices of FAO for the benefit of all the introduction of new varieties as the main causes of practices, technologies, and policies that promote the 2. Networks for plant conservation activities established
humanity. The agreements recognize the Centres as the loss of genetic diversity. positive and mitigate the negative impacts of agricul- or strengthened at national, regional and internation-
trustees for the collections under their care. In signing the ture on biodiversity. al levels.
agreements, the CGIAR accepted the long-term responsi- The State of the World Report provided the basis for the
bility to see that the invaluable and irreplaceable material Global Plan of Action. The FAO Commission on Genetic A key objective is to strengthen the capacity of farmers Not all countries waited for the Global Strategy to be
in the collections is safely conserved to international tech- Resources for Food and Agriculture guided the develop- and indigenous and local communities to sustainably adopted before starting work. Planta Europa, backed by
nical standards, well documented and readily accessible. ment of the Global Plan, through a country-driven manage agricultural biodiversity so as to increase their the Council of Europe, has already agreed to a Plant
preparatory process that included twelve regional and sub- benefits and promote awareness and responsible Conservation Strategy for Europe along the lines of the
Under the terms of the 1994 agreements, the Future regional meetings at which governments discussed prob- action. Global Strategy. Colombia has also adopted a national
Harvest Centres are not permitted to claim ownership, or lems and opportunities and made recommendations for strategy in anticipation of the Global Strategy. Ethiopia
seek intellectual property rights over the in-trust materi- the Global Plan. This process itself helped to strengthen The Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, adopted by proposed that a regional strategy for Africa should be
al and related information. They must pass the same obli- existing national crop diversity research programmes and the 6th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the developed, following the example of Europe.
gations on to any recipient of material from the collec- regional networks and promoted scientific co-operation. Convention on Biological Diversity in April 2002, is the
18 C R O P D I V E R S I T Y AT R I S K : T H E C A S E F O R S U S TA I N I N G C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S I N T E R N AT I O N A L C O M M I T M E N T TO S AV I N G C R O P D I V E R S I T Y 19
The State of Crop
Through the succession of treaties and strategies adopted over the last decade, the global
community has demonstrated its intention to conserve crop genetic diversity.
However, despite their best intentions, many countries are having difficulty meeting
these commitments and many genebanks are proving unable to fulfill even
basic conservation functions.
In the six years since 150 countries endorsed the Global FAO based its evaluation on reports from 151 govern-
Plan of Action, its implementation regarding genebank ments. More recent data—supplied by 99 countries—has
conservation has been patchy. While there have been allowed for some of this information to be updated. The
some significant advances, primarily in developed coun- new data, comparing conservation efforts in 2000 to
tries, many developing nations are struggling. The finan- those in 1996 show that:
cial and human resources needed to sustain their efforts
The number of plant samples being conserved world-
are in short supply—the “safe houses” that store human-
wide has increased in 66 percent of countries and
ity’s agricultural heritage are not all equally secure.
remained unchanged in 13 percent. About 6 percent
Although most nations are trying to meet their commit-
of countries have lost portions of their collections.
ments—as evidenced by increases in the size of genebank
(About 15 percent of countries did not respond to
collections—the capacity to maintain those collections
has in most cases either declined or remained unchanged.
Despite this expansion of collections, genebank
The maintenance of the status quo is of concern given the budgets have been cut back in 25 percent of countries
low baseline from which most countries are starting. In and remained static in 35 percent. Budgets improved
1996, FAO determined that a large number of the world’s in 33 percent of countries (7 percent provided no
crop genebanks were in a state of “rapid deterioration.”41 It response).
CIMMYT reported that some genebanks established in the 1970s and
Staff have been reduced in 19 percent of countries and
1980s had already closed and that others faced deteriora-
remained static in 50 percent. Some 26 percent report
tion of physical structures and equipment and had an omi-
staff increases (10 percent provided no response).
nously high backlog of plant samples that needed to be
regenerated before they lost their viability. The same report The number of samples in urgent need of regenera-
found that most countries lacked long-term storage capac- tion increased or remained unchanged in 62 percent
ity for crop genetic resources. Only 77 countries reported of countries. Some 18 percent of countries succeeded
that they had seed storage facilities suitable for medium-or in decreasing their regeneration needs (20 percent
long-term storage, and of those, “probably fewer than half provided no response.)
can offer secure, long-term management of accessions.”42
Without long-term storage, there is little security for the As the following statistics show, in most cases, genebanks
world’s crop genetic resources. in developing countries and countries in economic tran-
T H E S TAT E O F C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S W O R L D W I D E 21
sition have faired worse than in developed countries. report static budgets. One third (33 percent) have had
However, even some of the world’s richest nations have budget increases. Meanwhile, 61 percent report Averting Disaster
experienced cutbacks and fallen behind in regenerating increases in the size of their collections.
their collections. ALL TOO OFTEN IN RECENT YEARS, genebanks have narrowly averted disaster. In the examples described below, emergency
Among countries with economies in transition, 33
interventions narrowly saved entire collections from destruction. But emergency or stopgap measures cannot ensure the viabil-
percent report reduced budgets; 40 percent report
ity of all the world’s genebanks. More comprehensive measures are needed.
BUDGET CUTBACKS AND static budgets; and 27 percent report increases. Some
COLLECTION INCREASES 73 percent have increased their collections. ROMANIA SOMALIA
Country reports show that countries in the midst of eco- As with many national genebanks in Eastern Europe, the In 1991, Somalia’s government collapsed amid civil war and
Among developed countries, only 13 percent have
nomic transition and in the developing world have suffered Romanian genebank faced dire times at the dawn of the 21st the country was plunged into anarchy. By mid-1992, a com-
had cutbacks; 53 percent have remained static, and 33
the most severe cutbacks in their crop diversity conserva- Century. Its irreplaceable collection, with over 10 000 unique bination of war, drought, and banditry produced a famine
percent have had budget increases. Some 80 percent
tion budgets. On a regional basis, budget cuts have been accessions (74 percent indigenous and 68 percent tradition- that killed more than 300 000 people. Among the casualties
have increased the size of their collections.
most severe in sub-Saharan Africa (41 percent of countries al farmers’ varieties), was threatened by poor storage condi- of the chaos were Somalia’s genetic resources—seeds and
have had their budgets reduced); South America (38 per- tions. Landraces of maize, wheat, barley, linseed, faba beans other plant materials essential for growing and improving the
cent); Central America (30 percent); and Southwest Asia
REGENERATION and common beans were all threatened. country’s major food crops.
The new data show that the need for regeneration
(29 percent). Increases were highest in North America (100
was most extensive in developing countries, followed The high electrical consumption of an ancient refrigera- Fortunately, prior to this disaster, the Somali government had
percent) and in East Asia (100 percent).
by countries in economic transition. However, even tion system—able to run just one of the four available arranged to have 300 samples of Somali sorghum and maize
a majority of developed countries reported a lack of cold storage chambers—consumed the national deposited with the Kenya national genebank for safekeeping.
Reduced or static budgets for genebank collections result in
improvement in their regeneration efforts. The genebank’s entire budget. As a result, staff was forced to Other samples of Somali crops were maintained at Future
a multitude of problems, including poor maintenance of
regions with the most urgent regeneration needs neglect the urgent regeneration of the majority of the Harvest collections in India and Nigeria and in genebanks in
equipment such as cooling and humidity control units, and
are South Asia, South America and Sub-Saharan plant samples. the United States and Russia.
an insecure electrical supply. When budget cuts come at the
same time that collections are growing in size, maintenance In this instance, FAO and IPGRI mobilized resources to These back-up collections made it possible to restore native
of those collections becomes even more difficult. upgrade the storage and documentation facilities, and plant genetic resources to the country. In 1997, an aircraft
A regeneration backlog is a strong indication that a
finance critical measures to save parts of the collection and delivered a half-ton of seeds of 165 different local crop vari-
genebank is in trouble. Collections can survive indefinite-
The data show that: ensure a minimum level of conservation while long-term eties to Somalia. Research scientists worked with farmers to
ly only if they are regularly reproduced. Ultimately, plant
solutions were developed. plant, harvest and replant seeds of key Somali crops to build
Some 28 percent of developing countries have had samples that are not regenerated die and genetic diversity
up quantities needed to supply to farmers.
genebank budget cuts since 1996. Another 29 percent is lost.
Loss in the South Pacific The data show that: STAFF, TRAINING AND CAPACITY
ON THE SOUTH PACIFIC ISLAND nation of Fiji, 67 percent of the work force is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Fiji main- 1. Some 52 percent of developing countries have BUILDING
tains most of its crop diversity collection as whole plants growing in field genebanks with additional samples held in cold stor- increased numbers of samples in need of urgent About 80 percent of the world’s scientists live in industri-
age. In November 2001, senior research officers at the country’s Koronivia Research Station reported that Fiji’s cooling facilities regeneration. Another 15 percent reported no change alized countries, which account for about 20 percent of
urgently needed replacement. Problems with the cooling equipment had caused the loss of 212 rice samples. In addition the in status. Only 10 percent had succeeded in reducing the world’s population, 20 percent of its biodiversity and
genebanks had lost valuable samples of yams, beans, tomato, pigeon peas, cowpeas, peanuts and kumala (sweet potato). their regeneration load. about 85 percent of the world’s economy. At least three-
quarters of the remaining scientists live in just a few
The report warned that Fiji risked further losses because of The genebank losses were accompanied by a loss of diversi-
2. Among countries in transition, 40 percent have
countries, among them China, India, Brazil, and Mexico.
lack of funds needed to: ty in farmers’ fields: commercial varieties were replacing tra-
increased numbers of samples in need of urgent
A majority of the world’s remaining countries have very
ditional ones and land clearing practices were likewise erod-
regeneration; another 7 percent reported no change of
Maintain and repair equipment, including the cooler few scientists and scientific institutions, and limited
ing diversity. In particular, varieties of yams, coconuts, and
status. However, 40 percent have succeeded in reduc-
and the two freezers; capacity to deal with the conservation of biodiversity and
dalo (the local name for taro – an edible root rich in calcium
ing their regeneration load.
Purchase a backup generator to be used in case of its sustainable use. 44
electricity failures (sometimes caused by cyclones in and iron) were being lost in farm fields. 3. Among developed countries, 27 percent reported
the region); increased need for regeneration; another 27 percent As seen below in tables based on information compiled
The report noted the need to document and describe crop
Duplicate seeds; reported no change in status. One-third had reduced by FAO in 2000 this same situation applies to the
samples held in the genebanks – including those traditional
Build and maintain long-term storage facilities; their regeneration load. world’s crop diversity collections, and is evident in
crops that were being displaced from the field.43
Regenerate collections; genebanks’ relative abilities to carry out activities that
Educate stakeholders on conservation; Although the majority of all countries (66 percent) report- demand higher levels of capacity and training, such as
Purchase equipment for seed processing and viability ed having multi-year plans for regeneration in place, it is monitoring collections for diversity and testing them
control. clear that many of these are not being carried out. for viability.
22 C R O P D I V E R S I T Y AT R I S K : T H E C A S E F O R S U S TA I N I N G C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S T H E S TAT E O F C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S W O R L D W I D E 23
the Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and
MONITORING GENETIC DIVERSITY
Sustainable Use of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and
Is the genetic diversity of the collections monitored on Agriculture. This information is retrievable from
a regular basis in all your country genebanks? http://apps3.fao.org/wiews/wiewspage.jsp?i_l=EN&show
COUNTRY STATUS YES NO NO RESPONSE
Developed 73% 20% 7% COLLECTIONS AT RISK
Economy in transition 67 33 - Even as collecting missions have continued and genebank
collections have expanded, the resources to sustain them
Developing 51 48 1
are being stretched ever thinner. Unless this trend in
resources is reversed, the time will come when many
genebank collections around the globe will fail. Should
MONITORING VIABILITY OF SAMPLES this happen, the world will lose an irreplaceable resource.
While international treaties recognize the importance of
Is the viability of the collections monitored on a regular
basis in all your country genebanks?
crop diversity collections, and some countries have man-
aged to increase the resources directed toward them, the
COUNTRY STATUS YES NO NO RESPONSE reality is that this responsibility exists year in and year out
—in perpetuity—and annual sources of uncertain funds
Developed 93% 7% -
cannot be expected to sustain crop genebanks. Too much
Economy in transition 73 27 - is at stake.
Developing 67 32 1
A similar situation exists in regard to training, with the
least developed countries in greatest need of staff train-
ing. Asked whether genebank staff had received any train-
ing since 1996, 40 percent of countries in transition, 35
percent of developing countries, and 20 percent of devel-
oped countries said no.
Comprehensive information systems—essential for the
effective use of crop diversity collections—are lacking as
well. Although 62 percent of countries reported having
information systems for data management of crop diver-
sity collections or seed stock, only 29 percent had infor-
mation systems on a national level, and 44 percent of
countries failed to provide any training in documenta-
tion/information systems since 1996.
Developing countries are clearly disadvantaged by lack of
access to the internet, which hampers their access to
international databases such as the FAO’s World
Information and Early Warning System on Plant Genetic
Resources for Food and Agriculture or the CGIAR’s
System-wide Information Network for Genetic Resources
—SINGER. All developed countries had such access, as
did 67 percent of countries in transition. But fewer than
half (48 percent) of developing countries had access.
The foregoing analysis is based on information from the
FAO 2000 Survey on Monitoring the Implementation of
24 C R O P D I V E R S I T Y AT R I S K : T H E C A S E F O R S U S TA I N I N G C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S T H E S TAT E O F C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S W O R L D W I D E 25
The world's crop genebanks maintain the seeds for future harvests, even as crop diversity
disappears from farmers’ fields and nature. As the climate changes, as the human
population increases and development proceeds apace, the need for crop
diversity collections is greater than ever.
These collections conserve crop varieties and genes that Despite the agreements forged through international
farmers and scientists require if they are to continue to conventions and the guidance provided by the Global
produce seeds that provide food and countless other Plan of Action, the disparities between genebanks are
resources for present and future generations. They con- large. Behind these disparities are two main factors: the
serve both the major staple crops upon which humanity lack of a clearly articulated vision for a global genebank
depends and minor crops that ensure the health and system and access to the resources necessary to make that
livelihoods of millions of farming communities around vision a reality.
the world. Genebanks provide the best opportunity for
reintroducing diversity of crops and varieties that were The vision should not be difficult to articulate: it includes
presumed lost; their vast collections undoubtedly contain both management standards and optimal goals. The min-
many as yet unrecognized treasures. imum standards should ideally be met by all genebanks,
because they assure the viability and usefulness of a col-
TOMORROW'S GENEBANKS lection.
In the early 1970s, the world’s genebanks held perhaps half
a million samples. Since then, genebanks and their collec- Issues around which minimum standards need to be set
tions have mushroomed, with each year seeing an average include the procedures for entering new material into a
expansion of some 200 000 samples. Many of the hundreds collection; the establishment of appropriate regeneration
of new collections established in the last three decades were regimes that are fundamental to maintaining the viability
understandably assembled in an atmosphere of crisis, and and genetic integrity of genebank samples; accurate and
the imprint of that legacy remains. As a result, today there timely monitoring of the viability of samples; and the
is a wide spectrum of genebank capacity. At one end of the characterization, documentation and supply of healthy,
spectrum, crop genebanks use their well-managed collec- viable samples to users.
tions, technical expertise and deep knowledge base to act as
partners in crop improvement and in the conservation of Optimal goals for genebank operations go well beyond
agricultural diversity in farmers’ fields and in the wild. At the technical responsibilities of collecting, maintaining,
the other end of the spectrum, some genebanks are over- regenerating and distributing seed. They go to the core
whelmed by the job of managing the material in their care purpose of crop diversity collections: to conserve unique
and are unable, often through lack of funding, to carry out and potentially valuable diversity of key crops. Beyond
basic conservation functions. knowing what is in the collection, genebanks should be
proactive participants in the planning of agricultural pro- These mandates from the world community have not yet
duction systems in terms of what kinds of crops and vari- been fully implemented, although countries and organi-
eties to use. They should be centres of information on zations have made initial efforts in good faith. The
genetic resources in a given country. Genebanks should resources are lacking to allow their full realization. The
be able to provide relevant information to every potential task now is to procure the resources necessary to ensure
user: what the varieties have to offer in terms of develop- that genebanks worldwide can meet their conservation
ment; what they have to offer in terms of contributing to functions and offer the full range of expertise and insight
a more sustainable environment; and the full range of that accompanies their mission. To garner these
indigenous knowledge associated with a species, includ- resources, the world community must look beyond the
ing its uses. On all of these topics, genebanks should make annual budgets of individual countries or donor organi-
information available to policy makers and the general zations. Resources can be pooled into one global fund—
public. A well functioning genebank should operate with- an endowment for the future of agricultural diversity and
in the framework of relevant international treaties. a foundation for food security.
Finally, genebanks should link conservation with devel-
opment and agriculture with the environment. A PERMANENT ENDOWMENT?
A substantial endowment would match the perpetual
FUNDING IN PERPETUITY need for crop diversity conservation with a perpetual
From the perspective of a genebank that lacks money to source of support for the world's national and interna-
run its cooling system, these goals may indeed seem tional plant genetic resources collections. It could support
remote. Limited resources can present nearly insur- the maintenance needs of the world's most critical collec-
mountable obstacles. Therefore, it is time to think about tions and help to build the capacity of under-funded
how to mobilize global resources to meet a global chal- collections. An endowment could help realize the ideals of
lenge. New and imaginative means of support must be the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources by
found. Until now, genebank funding has largely been taking as its starting point conservation of the 35 priority
dependent on annual disbursements from national budg- food crops and 80 forages listed under the Treaty. Over
ets, which can vary from year to year. However the need time, it could grow in size and scope to encompass addi-
to keep crop diversity collections safe exists in perpetuity. tional genebank collections and crops.
To let it lapse even one year may mean the sacrifice of
irreplaceable crop genetic resources. Therefore, funding The conservation of crop diversity collections is a respon-
must be stable and forever. sibility that transcends borders, regimes, and world
orders. The issue is on the table.
Several recent international treaties and global plans
address these concerns and suggest directions to pursue.
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources
calls for a funding strategy to mobilize resources for
priority conservation activities, including for main-
taining and expanding the role of crop genebanks.
The Global Plan of Action envisions a more rational
global genebank system, in which costly and excessive
duplication is eliminated, while crucial collections,
each with a single duplicate set, are fully secured at
separate locations. The Global Plan assumes a high
level of international and national collaboration.
The in-trust agreements between the Food and
Agriculture Organization and the Future Harvest
Centres, place the collections managed by the Centres
under the auspices of FAO to be conserved and used
for the benefit of all humanity. These agreements envi-
sion an on-going responsibility—yet no stable funding
mechanism has been established.
28 C R O P D I V E R S I T Y AT R I S K : T H E C A S E F O R S U S TA I N I N G C R O P C O L L E C T I O N S CONCLUSION 29
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THE DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURAL SCIENCES
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