Testing accessions for viability at ICRISAT. Photo: S Ghosh

Saving the seed: A bank that secures the future of agriculture

Testing accessions for viability at ICRISAT. Photo: S Ghosh

Testing accessions for viability at ICRISAT. Photo: S Ghosh

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Stashed away in earthquake proof and environment-controlled vaults in south India, are thousands of stockpiles of seeds of crops important to semi-arid tropics covering Asia, much of southern and eastern Africa, and a few locations in Latin America.

This fortified archive at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) headquarters at Patancheru near Hyderabad in Telangana, is home to one of the largest plant genebanks in the world – a safehouse with rows of neatly labelled cans and vacuum sealed aluminum foil packs containing seeds.

And for over four decades, the R.S. Paroda genebank at ICRISAT has been working quietly to preserve bounties of crop diversity watched over by expert genebank managers.

The collection of raw genetic material is needed to breed diverse crops to ensure food security, as environmental degradation, climate change and desertification in dryland areas threaten food production and security.

The genebank hosts 126,830 accessions (samples of a particular plant population stored as seeds) collected and assembled from 144 countries, including the world’s largest genetic holdings of sorghum, pearl millet chickpea, pigeonpea, groundnut and small millets. Now, new projects are being rolled out to secure and bolster the collection of the genebank, identify gap areas and enhance its usability.

“If we don’t have germplasm we don’t have the basis to develop anything. So all the breeding programs and research on these crops are based on germplasm and the genebank represents the biggest diversity possible of all those crops so we can have variability. Our job is to generate data so we can improve the utility of the bank,” Vania Azevedo, head of the ICRISAT Genebank, told Mongabay-India.

Fewer crops feeding the world (less diversity) than 50 years ago, renders agriculture more vulnerable to stresses such as droughts, insect pests and diseases. Having more diversity means having access to a large range of genetic traits.

“This diversity aids farmers adapt their crops to provide protection from disease, insect pests and changes in the climate. Some crops that were not important 50 years ago may become important in the future as we witness a change in climate. So genebanks are important toolkits in adaptation,” Hari Upadhyaya, Principal Scientist, ICRISAT Genebank, told Mongabay-India.

This long-term storage of seeds is, therefore, envisioned as a strategy to salvage crop diversity. Read more here…

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