Genebanks Key To Crop Diversity
South Africa August 29, 2002 (ENS) - A lack of funding for agricultural
gene banks could lead to the loss of a large proportion of the world's
collection of crop diversity, warns a new report from researchers
from the Department of Agricultural Sciences at Imperial College
in London. Seeds from some of the world's most unusual lettuces
are stored in a gene bank at Salinas, California.
In a report
released today at the United Nations (UN) World Summit on Sustainable
Development, professor Jeff Waage, head of the department, warns
that many genebanks are now unable to fulfill basic conservation
functions, putting at risk the crop diversity that underpins a stable
and sustainable world food supply.
"Crop diversity at risk: the case for sustaining crop collections,"
provides the latest picture of genebank performance. It compares
data from 99 countries collected by the UN Food and Agriculture
Organization (FAO) in 2000 to similar data from 151 governments
collected by the FAO in 1996.
found that although the number of plant samples held in crop diversity
collections has increased in 66 percent of the studied countries,
genebank budgets have been cut back in 25 percent of countries and
remained static in another 35 percent.
in genebanks must be periodically planted and new seed harvested
in order to keep seed stocks viable, and a backlog in this regeneration
process is a strong indication of a critical lack of resources,
the authors warn. The report notes that more than half of developing
countries and 27 percent of developed countries have reported an
increase in the number of plant samples in urgent need of regeneration.
assume the crop diversity that scientists have already collected
from cultivated fields is safe. We found that this is not necessarily
the case," said Professor Waage. "In fact, many critical
genebank collections are in a precarious state. If these collections
are allowed to fail, then we will lose the valuable crop diversity
they contain forever."
In order to
safeguard future crop diversity, the report calls for the establishment
of a permanent international endowment, funded by public and private
sources, to support the maintenance of the world's most critical
points us to one major conclusion: genebanks can no longer rely
on uncertain annual sources of funding - as most do now - to fulfill
their perpetual responsibility for maintaining the diversity of
plants that are essential for food security," Waage explained.
a significant portion of the world's agricultural heritage and provide
the last sanctuary for a growing number of crop wild relatives.
These include the cassava, a starchy root crop that is a staple
food in parts of Africa and Asia, and the tomato, whose wild relatives
are approaching extinction due to deforestation and development.
Wild species of coffee, grape and wheat also join the list of wild
crop relatives facing genetic erosion - a process that can lead
On farm losses
are also increasing as farmers give up traditional crop varieties
in favor of high yielding modern types. The FAO estimates that about
three-quarters of the original varieties of agricultural crops have
been lost from farm fields since 1900. Such losses include wheat
varieties in China, maize in Mexico and soybean in the United States.
The wheat species
Triticum monococcum gives an example of the vital role that genebanks
can play. Although widely grown for bread throughout the ancient
Roman Empire, it is now almost lost, with relic populations existing
only in Turkey and possibly Yemen.
of its high fiber content, T. monococcum is once again in demand
and a project has been established to bring back this crop using
samples stored in genebanks.
farm diversity and wild crop relatives are sources of rare genetic
traits needed for coping with environmental stress, plant disease
and pests," said Waage. "Knowing this, countries have
undertaken important efforts to expand their crop diversity collections.
A main task now is to ensure the safety of those collections and
their accessibility to farmers, plant breeders and researchers."