The work of genebanks can never stop

Experts weigh in on the relevance of genebanks against a global crisis

A screenshot of the participants at the GLFLive Q&A session.

A screenshot of the participants at the GLFLive Q&A session.

Genebanks have been and will continue to be vital for global biological diversity and food security in the long run, said genebank experts at a recent interview with the Global Landscapes Forum. The virtual session focused on how important it was for genebanks to carry out their work in the scenario of the COVID-19 crisis.

Dr Vania Azevedo, Head, Genebank, ICRISAT, said, “Genebanks are the basis of all agricultural research. We ensure that from sowing and harvesting to processing, the seeds stay viable for years to come.”

Even during a crisis such as the present pandemic, genebanks cannot afford to completely shut down because they’re the first step towards development of varieties that ultimately end up as food on our plates, said Dr Vania. Especially now, with climate change and its related consequences of various pests (e.g. fall army worm, locusts) endangering crops, there is an increased urgency to diversify our crops, to develop crops that are resilient to such stresses.

She described how the ICRISAT genebank succeeded, with the help of volunteers, to harvest over 10 ha of seed accessions being regenerated in the fields, despite a lockdown being declared in India, while ensuring that the seeds were meticulously collected and stored. “Genebanks are dynamic and we never stop,” Dr Vania said.

Dr Lava Kumar, Head of Germplasm Health, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), said that while the reputation of CGIAR centers enabled seed samples to get through to appropriate locations with the right clearances despite port shutdowns etc., the continuous process of testing seed accessions to ensure non-contamination and viability has been hindered by the lockdown. This was especially important since 50,000-100,000 accessions are tested and validated across the 11 CGIAR centers annually.

Dr Charlotte Lusty, Head of Programs and Genebank Platform Coordinator, Crop Trust, said, “We consider the CGIAR genebank systems as the pillars of the global system of seed conservation because of the quality and diversity of their seed collections.” However, she said that seedlings of important crops like potato, sweet potato, banana, yam etc. also were much more vulnerable to lockdowns as they need more care; hence more support is needed to protect them from similar events in the future.

These were some of the key points made by the seed conservation champions who participated in a live interview that examined the relationship between COVID-19, genebanks and the conservation of seeds.  The interview was conducted on 13 May 2020 by Dr Tony Simons, Director General, World Agroforestry (ICRAF).

Click here for a recording of the interview.

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