The global pandemic has not halted efforts to secure agrobiodiversity. Genebanks around the world continue to strive to conserve seeds and germplasm that will form the foundation of the world’s future food supply, under often challenging conditions. The overarching aim? To ensure a healthy, diverse and resilient food supply for future generations. Although achieving this aim is far from simple.
Towards this goal, in October this year hundreds of seed samples from around the world will be deposited in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
The Seed Vault, a long-term safety backup for seeds of importance to the world’s food supply, receives deposits from genebanks several times a year. No deposits have been made since February 2020—until now, with seven institutes sending samples.
“It is crucially important that genebanks back-up their seeds and are continuing to do so despite the pandemic. Norway is proud to have established the Seed Vault and will continue to take care of it as part of our long-term commitment to agrobiodiversity management globally,” said Olaug Bollestad, Norwegian Minister of Agriculture and Food.
The Seed Vault offers great storage conditions for its safety duplicates, as it is located in one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth—and one of the most remote.
Although representatives of the depositing institutions sometimes attend the Seed Vault openings—February’s deposit included a well-attended ceremony—travel restrictions under COVID-19 mean that only Norway-based personnel will oversee this deposit.
“It is impressive that the genebanks are able to prepare significant numbers of seed samples under difficult working conditions caused by the pandemic. In total around 15000 samples have been received for this Seed Vault opening, and we are happy to secure them in the Seed Vault,” said Åsmund Asdal of NordGen, who is coordinating the deposit.
Bred for success
Among this month’s depositors is the Rice Biodiversity Center for Africa, part of AfricaRice, which is depositing a range of rice germplasm, of both landraces and traditional varieties, as well as several improved varieties.
“Some accessions of these species are conserved in our long-term storage, but have not yet been secured in the Seed Vault,” said Marie Noelle Ndjiondjop, Manager of the Rice Biodiversity Center for Africa. “All conditions have now been met for these accessions to be safety duplicated.”
The improved varieties were bred by AfricaRice and national research institutes by crossing African and Asian rice. The result was varieties that combine the high yield potential of the Asian parents with the resistance to abiotic and biotic stresses of the African parents.
Improved varieties account for the entire deposit by the Chaipattana Foundation in Thailand, which is sending 14 improved breeds of vegetables, including beans, tomatoes, chilis, cabbages and gourds.
“These crops were developed to have special qualities. They are rich in nutrients, provide high yields, and are also resistant to drought and pests,” said a statement by the Working Team of the Chaipattana Foundation.
The varieties were bred at the behest of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, Honorary President and Executive Chairperson of the Chaipattana Foundation, who also granted permission for the seeds to be sent to the Seed Vault.
“By having the newly improved seeds stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the Thai people can be sure that, in the event of global disasters, these seeds will be kept secure, and can be accessed for propagation and cultivation in the future,” the Working Team said.
Adapting to climate change
The growing threat of climate change is front of mind for the SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre (SPGRC), which is depositing seeds for three cereals, three pulses and calabash. These crops are staple foods in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), where they provide important sources of carbohydrates and protein for rural people.
Backing up these seeds is essential because the SADC region is increasingly experiencing extremely dry weather conditions, explained Dr. Justify Gotami Shava, Head of SPGRC.
“These crop species are drought tolerant and guarantee food for communities amid these serious threats of climate change, as characterized by frequent droughts,” Dr. Shava said. “They have to be conserved to guarantee community seed security now and in the future.”
Keeping it local
Two of the institutes note the importance of securing backups of plants that can be found almost exclusively in genebanks.
Thailand’s National Rice Seed Storage Laboratory for Genetic Resources (NRSSL) is depositing 264 rice varieties, all of which are local varieties.
“It’s important to conserve them, because these local varieties are rarely found in farmers’ fields, and have nearly disappeared from use,” said Dr. Kulchana Darwell, Agricultural Research Officer at NRSSL.
Similarly, this year’s deposit from Poland’s National Center for Plant Genetic Resources (IHAR) consists of more than 1200 seed samples from over 30 species, most of which are Polish varieties of cultivated plants, including vegetables, collected during field expeditions in Poland.
“These seeds, whose safety duplicates we are submitting to the Seed Vault, are priceless,” said IHAR’s Dr. Grzegorz Gryziak. “Most of the plants that we protect in this way no longer grow in the fields. It is our duty to do everything we can to preserve them.”
Secure crop diversity, secure food
The seed samples deposited this month will join the more than one million seed samples already safely backed up in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
However, millions more unique seed samples that are preserved in genebanks have not yet been backed up. Furthermore, large numbers of plants important to food and agriculture have not been conserved at all, including many wild species and farmers’ varieties, and so risk being irreversibly lost.
“The loss of agrobiodiversity around the world is accelerating, and we are not seeing conservation efforts keeping pace,” said Hannes Dempewolf, Director of External Affairs at the Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust). “We need renewed efforts and support to make sure the agricultural biodiversity that remains in food systems is kept safe for future generations.”
The emphasis on the future—and securing food forever—is a founding principle of the Seed Vault and its ongoing operations.
For depositing institutions, the value of the Seed Vault cannot be overestimated.
“It is not only about securing plant genetic resources for us and future generations,” said Dr. Gryziak. “This international, peaceful cooperation is equally important. This gives hope, especially now in this difficult time of the pandemic.”
This article was made possible by the Crop Trust, an international organization working to support crop conservation in genebanks, forever. Through investment income generated by its endowment fund, it provides key financial support to international, regional and national genebanks, and the world’s backup facility, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Crop Trust’s global patron is His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales.