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Genebank Platform’s Legacy Lives On in New CGIAR Initiative

20 June 2022

Genebank Platform’s Legacy Lives On in New CGIAR InitiativeThe Genebank Platform supported the systemwide collaboration of international genebanks in 12 countries. (Credit: Michael Major/Crop Trust)

With the CGIAR Genebank Platform now completed, former Head of Programs and Coordinator of the Genebank Platform Charlotte Lusty reflects on the project's impact and what the future holds.

A decade has passed since the Crop Trust first began to coordinate CGIAR’s program on genebanks. The CGIAR Research Program on Genebanks started in 2012, followed in 2017 by the five-year CGIAR Genebank Platform, which officially came to an end in December 2021.

This cohesive collective of 11 CGIAR genebanks forms the flagstones upon which food security is built. Although the Platform has come to an end, the work of the genebanks is, of course, not finished—in fact, it never is. Their operations and efforts to bolster food security continue under CGIAR management as the new Genebank Initiative.

The Genebank Platform operated during a remarkable phase of environmental history during which nearly every year has broken records for the hottest temperatures – generating a sense of increasing panic that our agricultural systems are under unmanageable pressure. 

Where can we find the traits, varieties and crops that are able to withstand the impacts of such rapid and unpredictable climate change?

The message is also clear that agriculture and food systems must be transformed over the next 30 years if we are to see improvement in the lives of the billions of people who are undernourished, malnourished or unable to make a decent living. 

Agricultural systems need to produce more and better food while being beneficial, or at least less harmful, to ecosystems. Crop diversity plays a major role in such a transformation.

International cooperation

No country is self-sufficient when it comes to food. Continents and countries undeniably depend on each other for both food and, underpinning that, of plant genetic resources (PGR). The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provides the policy framework to encourage PGR exchange; efficient international genebanks are not just storehouses, but also engines that power such exchanges at the global level.

The Platform supported the systemwide collaboration of international genebanks in 12 countries, relevant to more than 20 globally important staple crops cultivated in a wide range of geographical and ecological conditions worldwide. 

It worked to ensure that approaches to conserving and making available crop diversity are fit for purpose and effective for the long term. It combined the academic and technical skills needed to push technological boundaries, including in cryopreservation, seed conservation and characterization, with the team discipline needed for quality management and service to the public.

With sustained funding from the consortium of CGIAR funders, the governments of Germany, Finland and the UK and the European Commission, plus, of course, the Crop Trust, the genebanks were able to reach new performance levels, enabling them to function at a steady state into the future, and making them much easier to fund long term with secure and predictable funding through the Endowment Fund managed by the Crop Trust.

Rough ride

It wasn’t easy! The CGIAR genebanks deal with about 2,000 requests from the public each year, involving the distribution of up to 100,000 germplasm samples to 100 countries. 

What happens to that germplasm is hard to track, but we know that a lot of it ends up integrated into improved crops cultivated by farmers the world over. One of the impact studies conducted by the Platform in Eastern India determined that farmers experienced a 27 percent increase in rice yields with a 10 percent increase in genetic contribution from genebank materials. 

This movement of crop diversity out of the collections continued year in and year out, despite what you could say were an unfair number of curveballs thrown at us. 

The first crisis was the war in Syria, forcing the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) genebank to evacuate the country. Thanks to seed samples safety duplicated in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, ICARDA staff were able to start again from scratch in new facilities in Lebanon and Morocco. 

Then came unrest affecting genebanks in Ethiopia, Colombia and Lebanon, which demanded extraordinary measures to ensure staff could keep monitoring the collections safely. And then of course there was the pandemic, and two years of severe restrictions, during which staff had to face sickness, challenges to get to work, working overtime or in shifts at the weekend or late into the night in reduced numbers to keep up essential operations.

The ICARDA genebank manager Ahmed Amri did not retire until he had ensured the re-establishment of normal genebank operations. His eventual retirement in 2017 followed that of seven other genebank managers and several other long-serving staff, with a collective knowledge of more than 500 years. 

This mass retirement was an inevitable effect of CGIAR Centers marking some serious anniversaries – 40th and more. Responsibility for the genebanks now rests with a new generation of young curators and managers, representing a massive change of culture and mindset, but the resilient focus on long-term conservation and service to breeders and the public is very much still there. 

The events of the past few years could leave some feeling bleak. Indeed, in a joint event between Crop Trust, CGIAR and Chatham House held remotely in 2020, Chatham House’s Research Director on Emerging Risks, Professor Tim Benton, reinforced the message that the future is TUNA (turbulent, uncertain, novel and ambiguous) and food systems will need the diversity that genebanks can provide more than ever. 

As if to set the pace, CGIAR promptly entered into a period of major reform, including a new phase of initiatives. However, the past few years have shown me first-hand that the multi-layered systems we have put in place to conserve and share PGR are versatile and resilient. 

Every time I visit a CGIAR genebank, I never fail to be impressed by the stamina and dedication of the staff, the ever-improving facilities and processes, the new technologies being piloted, the endless ingenuity of the teams of national staff who continually find ways to work around challenges or take advantage of new opportunities. I have grown a deep respect for these genebanks and what they do.

The partnership between the Crop Trust and CGIAR remains strong, and the new Genebank Initiative will continue to underpin joint work on quality management systems, data management and partnership with national partners. 

More CGIAR genebanks will be eligible for increasing funding from the Endowment Fund through long-term partnership agreements, which unite these two organizations forever. 

The future may be TUNA but it is ours to shape, and shape it we will.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Crop Trust. The Crop Trust is committed to publishing a diversity of opinions on crop diversity conservation and use.

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