Deep inside a frozen Arctic mountain about 600 miles from the North Pole lies a vault that contains within its icy interior the potential to save mankind. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is located on a remote island in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, contains duplicates of seed collections from around the world, including those of 11 CGIAR Centers. Dubbed the Doomsday Vault, it was built to protect its precious inventory from the crises which regularly afflict genebanks, from regional and global catastrophes, such as flooding, earthquakes, to the far more common but very destructive problem of chronic underfunding. Kept at a constant temperature of -18 degrees Celsius, the Vault, which now contains some 740,000 seed samples, can preserve the seeds of most food crops for hundreds of years.
Established by the Global Crop Diversity Trust in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Gene Bank in 2008, the minimum-maintenance Seed Vault was described by Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg as “the Noah’s Ark of today.”
“I’d say doomsday is happening everyday for crop varieties,” said Cary Fowler, outgoing Executive Director of the Trust, which helps manage the facility. “Lots of people think that this vault is waiting for a major catastrophe before we use it. But it’s really a backup plan for seeds and crops. We are losing seed diversity every day and this is the insurance policy for that.”
Since the seeds stored in the Seed Vault act as a backup (the cost of which is borne by the Trust and the Norwegian government), they will only be used in the event that a depositor’s collection is destroyed or compromised in some way. As such, individual depositors are still responsible for maintaining their respective genebanks.
Setting up the Trust
CGIAR’s involvement with the Trust goes beyond the seeds that members of the CGIAR Consortium have stored in the Seed Vault. In 2004, Bioversity International (working on behalf of CGIAR Centers) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) set up the Trust as an independent international organization to ensure the long-term conservation and availability of crop diversity. Although such biodiversity is essential if farmers are to respond to the challenges of climate change, many of the genebanks that store agricultural biodiversity lack stable, long-term financial support to ensure the viability and availability of the material in their collections. The Trust supports a range of activities that will ensure that such collections are better understood, are made more useful, more easily available, more safely conserved, and more securely funded.
Seeds of hope
Of the more than one million CGIAR seed samples distributed in the past decade, 80 percent went to national researchers in developing countries to help breed more bountiful, efficient and resilient crops. Seed contributions from CGIAR genebanks have also helped jumpstart agricultural recovery after conflict and natural disasters in many countries around the globe.
Custodians of the crown jewels
CGIAR, through the CGIAR Fund and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, invested US$21 million in 2011, so that genebanks of the members of the CGIAR Consortium could maintain more than 700,000 samples of crop, forage and agroforestry genetic resources in the public domain for the year. These collections, which were once described by Cary Fowler as the “crown jewels” of international agriculture, include the world’s largest and most diverse collections of rice, wheat, maize and beans.
A comprehensive five-year program is in place to manage and fund the diversity of plant genetic resources in CGIAR-held collections and make these resources available to breeders and researchers in a way that meets high international scientific standards, is cost efficient, secure, reliable, sustainable over the long-term, and supportive of and consistent with the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).
The following are just a few examples of the rehabilitative and breeding efforts of CGIAR genebanks that have taken place over the last three decades:
After more than two decades of war and years of crippling drought, agricultural production capacity and food security were greatly compromised in Afghanistan. Looters had destroyed the country’s seed collections, including traditional farmer varieties that had been bred over generations to flourish under local conditions. The country, which had once boasted an agricultural sector that contributed to more than 80% of the national income, found itself heavily dependent on food aid from international donors.
In January 2002, the Future Harvest Consortium to Rebuild Agriculture in Afghanistan (FHCRAA), a multi-partner effort led by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA – a member of the CGIAR Consortium) and funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was established. Under the Consortium, ICARDA shipped 53 tonnes of foundation seed (bread wheat, durum wheat, barley, lentil, chickpea and vetch) to Afghanistan for on-site evaluation and to kick-start the release of new varieties. Lost crop varieties were also replaced from duplicates safeguarded in ICARDA’s own genebank.
Watch the video Rebuilding Agriculture in Afghanistan.
As the 1970s drew to a close, Cambodia lay in ruins after years of war and internal conflict. The population had been decimated and the production of rice, the staple food, had all but ceased. People on the brink of starvation had eaten the last remaining seed stocks of the country’s traditional rice varieties.
Fortunately, duplicates of 766 of these lost varieties were being safeguarded in the International Rice Genebank of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI – a member of the CGIAR Consortium). The Center was able to multiply the conserved rice and repatriate it back to Cambodia between 1981 and 1990. As a result, the country has been an exporter of rice since 1995.
In addition to helping restore native potato varieties in poor rural farming communities (varieties that otherwise would have been lost forever) the collection of the International Potato Center (CIP) has also served as a source for scientists to breed new varieties with desired traits, such as those that contain genes that are tolerant to cold and drought, or resistant to saline soil and certain viruses and diseases.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, a project involving the cultivation and consumption of CIP-bred orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties is helping combat vitamin A deficiency, a leading cause of mortality in African children. Watch the video The Orange Revolution.
In 1983, researchers from Cameroon selected the drought-resistant sorghum variety ‘S35’ from the collection held by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT – a member of the CGIAR Consortium). During the 1984 drought in northern Cameroon, scientists recorded a yield of 1300 kilograms per hectare for S35, compared with 719 kilograms per hectare for the farmers’ local variety. This was achieved without the use of irrigation or fertilizers. By 1995, S35 covered around 44,000 hectares in Cameroon and 64,000 in Chad -around 32 percent and 27 percent respectively of each countries rainfed sorghum areas. Read more.
Community seed banks
The role farmer communities play in the conservation of genetic resources is gaining importance, with more and more stories emerging to showcase the work of farmers in preserving their genetic heritage through community seed banks.
For example, in Nepal, halfway between Kathmandu and Pokhara, along the main road, in the village of Jogimara, a small, two-story building can be found. There is a hand-painted sign on the door, which reads: Jogimara community seed bank.
“For a long time we were asleep, but Local Initiatives for Biodiversity Research and Development (LI-BIRD) helped us to wake up and become active in the conservation of plant genetic resources,” said Hariram Khatiwada, the president of the community seed bank.
Bioversity International (a member of the CGIAR Consortium) is working together with LI-BIRD and other Nepalese agencies to strengthen community seed banks across the country, improve the national community seed bank policy and share Nepalese experiences globally. Read more.
A similar story has emerged from the Arakan Valley, the upland ‘rice belt’ of the Philippines.
As the plant genetic resources conserved in CGIAR genebanks underpin Center breeding programs and can readily supply others who need them with a broad diversity of crops and their wild relatives, it is imperative that these crown jewels be protected, maintained, and put to work.
Time to Do More for Afghanistan (CGIAR Archives)
Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT)