The DNA of the world's food crops just got a little more secure. Two leading agricultural organizations, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and CGIAR (formerly known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) Consortium, have agreed to invest $109 million over the next five years in the world's seed banks, which maintain 706,000 samples of seeds and vegetative material.
Most of the funds will go into maintenance and regular operations in the seed banks at 11 CGIAR research centers around the world. The majority of the money, 87 percent, will come from the CGIAR Fund. "I don't know a single gene bank in the world that has a secure, multiyear budget. This is the first time we've got a secure multiyear budget, and this is for five years," said Cary Fowler, special adviser to and former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
The seed banks, also called gene banks, are cheering the move. Daniel Debouck, program leader of genetic resources at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), said the new funding will ensure stability, guarantee smooth operation and enable planning. "We need to gather a capital of seed for distribution of about 7,000 [seeds] per year for farmers or universities, in the region [Colombia and neighboring countries] or in North America, or for breeding programs. We have to plan beforehand. It's a cycle of three to four years. We can't say, 'Please come back in four years, we will increase your material.'"
The primary function of a seed bank is to preserve viable genetic material of as many plants as possible. In the event of a weather- or pest-related disaster, scientists can choose seeds from this diverse material and distribute them to farmers to regenerate their crops. Seeds are chosen for their resilience to the particular type of threat faced. The seeds banks have a voluminous assortment of wheat, corn, rice, potatoes, bananas, forages and beans, among other plants.
The main operations include bringing the 30- to 40-year-old seeds out of storage, regenerating them if they are losing their viability or are in high demand, cleaning the seeds and replacing them into storage, and cleaning vegetative crop material and protecting it from viruses. "The importance of this project is not about doing anything different but doing more of the same and doing it consistently," said Charlotte Lusty, a scientist with the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
Some protection against 'novel climates'
The role of the seed banks is expected to become more critical as floods, drought and other impacts of climate change cast long shadows of doubt on global food security. "Studies suggest that climate change is going to result in novel climates -- 30 percent of the land will have climates the world has not experienced before. This means that we are unlikely to have adapted crops for these places. Furthermore, temperatures will rise, causing decreased yields for many crops. In some cases we would have to switch to other crops, but there are also possibilities to raise the heat tolerance of some crops," Bruce Campbell, director of CGIAR's research program on climate change, agriculture and food security, wrote in an email.
Fowler said, "One of the big problems for production will be heat stress, which affects all parts and all cycles of the plant but particularly affects the pollen. You get a very hot day and hot night, it sterilizes the pollen. In many of the modern varieties of rice, the flowers open up at about midday when the sun is the hottest, making the pollen vulnerable. In some of the older and wild varieties, the flowers open in the evening. The difference is a couple of degrees."
Raising the heat tolerance of crops involves breeding new varieties. "A lot of that is also about looking at material that is already in the gene bank and wild relatives that have stronger resistance to pathogens and environmental stresses," Lusty said. Similarly, material from the gene banks could be used to breed for greater salt tolerance, which would be needed in cases of sea-level intrusion as a result of sea-level rise.
Campbell pointed out that given the length of time it takes to breed new varieties, breeding for climate adaptation must start now.
Although they guess that crops with heat tolerance and salt resistance will be in great demand, agricultural scientists are loath to pick winners and would rather continue to maintain as diverse a genetic pool as possible. "Since we don't really have a crystal ball and don't know precisely what the future is going to bring, we are very reluctant to tailor our work to our predictions of what's going to happen with the climate in the future. That would be very risky for us to do," Fowler said.
Lusty said, "Rather than having any one seed of any one type, it is about conserving as many varieties as possible so when there is a challenge, like disease or drought, we can tap into that diversity."
Safeguarding genes against typhoons and civil war
The money from the CGIAR Fund and the Global Crop Diversity Trust will also go toward bolstering the seed banks themselves. The seed bank in the Philippines was affected when Typhoon Bopha tore through the country in December. The seed bank in Aleppo, Syria, narrowly escaped damage during the country's unrest. Although all material from the seed banks has been replicated and stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway -- a backup facility where no research is conducted -- securing the seed banks is a high priority for the consortium.
Another possible use of the new funding, Lusty said, is cryobanking, an expensive process of storing vegetative plants like potato, banana and cassava for long periods in or above liquid nitrogen. The funds could also go toward developing a Web portal that can serve as a one-stop shop for all gene bank information and resources.
Debouck would like to check and upgrade his equipment at CIAT. "We anticipate in three to five years from now, people will be on our back saying, 'I need a variety that is tolerant to high temp during the blooming phase.' I can say 'yes,' but I need to make that investment right now," he said. He also wants to invest in small tablet devices to collect digital images of the gene bank material. These images can be used to collate data, prevent a long process of rechecking data and be available for scientists to share over the Internet.
Debouck and Fowler both emphasize the need for long-term funds for such long-term plans. "If we are going to preserve this gigantic pool for agriculture, we really shouldn't be doing this on a year-by-year basis," Fowler said. During the five-year period for the current agreement, the consortium and the trust will also work with donors on an endowment that will fund the gene banks in perpetuity.
The goal remains to keep food supply intact and expanding for a growing population. As Fowler said, "Agriculture won't be adapted to climate change unless the crops are going to adapt to climate change, and that is the canary in the mine."
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