You might think the middle of a global pandemic isn’t an appropriate time to be discussing seed banks.
While coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is primarily a health crisis, it’s affecting all parts of society and the economy. People are especially worried about where their next meal will come from. With agricultural and food systems reeling globally the focus of decision-makers is mainly on the business end of the food chain. It’s not the virus causing large numbers of people to flee Delhi and other large cities in the developing world; it's the fear of hunger.
But farmers need to keep producing and selling. Middlemen need to keep buying and processors need to keep processing. It’s too early to say how the food system will be impacted in the long term. But one thing is certain – to mitigate the effects and rebound from shocks of the kind we’re currently experiencing – there must be diversity in all parts of the food chain.
We’re now learning the hard way the benefits of having ready access to more than just one supermarket. Food companies minimize risks by using multiple suppliers for their raw materials. Farmers are more resilient if they grow more than one crop; even more so if they can choose different varieties of each crop provided by seed companies and other sources.
We often place the beginning of the food chain at the farm. But it extends further back to seed banks, also called genebanks. These treasure troves safeguard the diversity of our crops and make seed available to researchers and plant breeders. They use the seeds to develop the new varieties that farmers and consumers need.
Properly dried and stored at low temperatures seeds of most crops can be kept for decades. If their condition is properly monitored they can be thawed and multiplied before they lose viability. If data on their characteristics are easily available researchers can request samples they need for their work at the click of a mouse button.
Our crops are just as vulnerable to a multitude of pathogens as we are to the coronavirus. Researchers use diversity in genebanks to breed varieties that can withstand pathogen attacks, better cope with a changing climate, are more nutritious, keep longer and taste better. Genebanks underpin the resilience of farmers and our food system.
We don’t think much about the raw materials behind food as we live our daily lives. But we should. There are hundreds of genebanks around the world. But among the largest, most widely used and most globally important are the 11 genebanks managed by a global agricultural research consortium called CGIAR, formerly the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. They conserve and make available to users, free of charge, more than 700,000 different types of seeds and other materials.
The group’s genebanks are undergoing a difficult time at the moment. With social distancing and other restrictions on movement, genebank staff members are scrambling to collect harvests before they’re lost. They’re tending to vulnerable plants in laboratories, greenhouses and fields. And they’re working to maintain other critical conservation measures that are keeping diversity alive. It’s an all-hands-on-deck crisis, but maintaining safety paradoxically means human help also must be limited.
Should a genebank lose samples there are back-ups of many of them in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. That’s thanks to the planning done by many people over many years for such eventualities. Genebanks can rebuild their collections from duplicated seeds. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas was able to do so when it lost access to its facilities during the civil war in Syria.
But the case is different when it comes to conserving roots, tubers and some other vegetative crops. They can’t be saved in the same manner as seeds are in a cold room. For potato, sweet potato, cassava, banana and yam the hope is to build collections that can be duplicated and moved around using cryopreservation. It’s a method of cooling tissues, involving deep-freezing with liquid nitrogen.
CGIAR genebanks will survive the crisis and revamp activities once it’s over. A significant proportion of their funding is guaranteed, thanks to the endowment of the Crop Trust. The International Rice Research Institute, for example, is home to more than 100,000 different rice varieties. Its operations are funded by the endowment for the long term. It’s immune to the vagaries of donor priorities and financial shocks. Another $200 million in the endowment would secure the other 10 CGIAR genebanks in the same way.
It’s less easy to be so sanguine about the genebanks of many developing countries. At times of crisis cash-strapped governments are likely to give genebanks even less of their attention. They need to resist that temptation. Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is making clear just how much we need genebanks. We’ll need them even more in the continuing face of climate change and outbreaks of new crop pests and diseases.
So yes it's the right time to think about genebanks. It’s always the right time.