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Genebanks Are Supposed to Be Forever

Illustration of scientist holding wheat

By Luigi Guarino

12 October 2018

For as long ahead as we can usefully think, breeders, researchers, and indeed farmers, will need genebanks to help them get hold of seeds.

Those seeds are the key to ensuring agriculture keeps pace with — or even, dare we think it? — outpaces – the demands of climate change, pests and diseases, and ever-pickier consumers.

But whether it is forever or just a long, long time doesn’t matter much anyhow: many donors don’t like funding anything much beyond the length of the average election cycle. And genebanks haven’t been getting a pass.

How do we reconcile the realities of short-term project funding with the equally real but remorselessly long-term needs of genebanks? Especially the needs of the 11 international genebanks managed by the CGIAR centres, which serve the whole world but, unlike national genebanks, do not even have national budget lines to fall back on.

People have been trying to square that circle for quite some time now. A 1995 external review of the CGIAR genebanks highlighted the problem, and a genebank investment and upgrading plan developed in 1999 laid the groundwork for an ambitious, even visionary, initiative. At CGIAR’s Mid-Term Meeting in 2000, the Finance Committee’s Working Group on Long-term Resource Mobilization recommended exploring the establishment of an endowment fund, the investment income from which would be used to support the in-trust crop collections.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2000, extensive consultations were held with FAO, with constituencies in the G7, with developing countries, with the Global Forum for Agricultural Research and with civil society. The purpose: to consider launching a major campaign to raise funds for an endowment for collections of crop diversity.

At CGIAR’s annual meeting in October 2000, it was agreed to proceed with a formal study of the feasibility of the endowment campaign. Long story short, the conclusion was that, given certain conditions (such as endorsement of the initiative by FAO, CGIAR and the World Bank and support from developing countries), it would be possible to raise significant funds for an endowment. On 29 August 2002, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the CGIAR and FAO announced plans to establish what at the time was called the Global Conservation Trust.

The initiative was presented to the Ninth Regular Session of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA) in October 2002. It was strongly endorsed. The Commission eventually gave rise to the Plant Treaty, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, as it ended up being called, was recognized as an essential element of its funding strategy.

Possible, that feasibility study said – not easy. It has taken over fifteen years for us to raise the almost $300 million that is currently in the Crop Trust endowment fund, the result of a steady vision, strong partnerships, a lot of hard work and a lot of generosity. There have been ups, and there have been downs. The financial crisis of 2008 was a definite down, but despite the hit we took then, and despite paying out almost $30 million over the past decade in support of genebanks around the world, never missing a promised payment, there is now more in the bank than donors have put in. The endowment mechanism works.

The announcement next week that Crop Trust will sign a partnership agreement with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that will guarantee full funding of the essential operations of the IRRI genebank forever has thus been almost twenty years in the making, but it shows that the long, hard slog is paying off. We are fulfilling the promise made to the world back in Johannesburg.

A long-term funding commitment is being matched to long-term commitments to the conservation of crop diversity. As long as rice seeds are needed, the IRRI genebank will be there to take care of them, and make them available, to all who need them, whether to breed new varieties, investigate the diversity of the crop, or plant a heirloom that’s been lost. Suddenly, twenty years doesn’t seem such a long time after all.

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