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F Rescuing crop diversity

From 2007-2012, the Crop Trust implemented activities to overcome a number of serious constraints to the development of a rational and efficient global system for the conservation of crop diversity in gene banks. As part of the project, 'Securing the Biological Basis of Agriculture and Promoting New and Fuller Use of Crop Genetic Resources', nearly 80,000 varieties of crop diversity were rescued in 88 countries and 143 institutes, and safely duplicated under the terms of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). This was the biggest biological rescue operation ever. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Grains Research and Development Corporation of Australia supported these activities.3

Crop Wild relatives

The Crop Trust and its partner, the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK, have embarked on a global effort to collect, conserve and use the wild relatives of 29 crops of global importance for food security. The 10-year project, Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives, a USD50 million initiative funded by the government of Norway, is the most systematic and comprehensive bid ever to conserve the world’s wild crop relatives on a global scale.3 Mr Lainoff told us that the collection phase, which started in 2013, “supports national programs in countries such as Ethiopia, Peru, Costa Rica, Ghanda and Nepal for collecting this diversity by training them to find, collect and conserve the wild relatives. For these ‘capacity building partnerships’, collection of crop varieties and pre-breeding will go on into 2018. By 2019 to 2020, we will be focusing on the deployment of this diversity to farmers and breeders.” This material was also shared with international collections as well. He continued “phase three is now underway, which is making this diversity available for years on a multi-lateral system free of charge.”

Information systems

The Crop Trust has worked with Bioversity International and the ITPGRFA to develop Genesys, an online portal bringing together information from gene banks worldwide. This userfriendly window into some of the more than seven millions samples of crop diversity stored around the world allows breeders, researchers and other users to search multiple gene bank databases on multiple criteria, and acquire genetic resources simply and efficiently.3 Bringing to life the fragility of this information and the seeds themselves was the retrieval of 128 boxes from The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in 2015, which were taken to the International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). As a result of the conflict in Syria, ICARDA had moved in 2012 to its current base in Beirut, Lebanon and needed to retrieve the seeds they’d previously duplicated and deposited at Svalbard, in order to continue their research. The seeds, which included ancient varieties of wheat and durum that date back to the birth of agriculture, are gradually being returned to Svalbard.

Conserving forever: A legacy for all of humanity

In fact, The Crop Trust also supports the ultimate failsafe for these and other collections in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where copies of seeds from almost every country beneath the 56 | August 2017 - Milling and Grain

arctic permafrost are backed up against an uncertain future. 150 metres deep into a mountain halfway between the North Pole and Norway, unique to any other seed bank, Svalbard is an insurance policy for other seed banks where priority is given to storing copies of crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture. It is the final back up and the world’s largest collection of agrobiodiversity. Constructed in 2008, the Crop Trust supports the Vault in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center (NordGen), which is responsible for its management and operation. With the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples, currently 930,000 crop accessions are being kept at minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit) and sealed in specially designed four-ply foil packages that are placed in sealed boxes and stored on shelves inside the vault. The low temperature and moisture level ensures low metabolic activity, keeping the seeds viable for decades, centuries, or in some cases thousands of years. Theoretically, the permafrost will still ensure the continued viability of the seeds if the electricity supply should fail. Mr Lainoff affirmed, “We’re aiming for the Vault to be absent from human life so in other words, we will not need humans to make sure that the vault runs.” Eventually, all seeds will lose the ability to germinate and die. Before this happens, seeds are taken from the stored samples and regenerated. Fresh, new seed is then harvested and placed in storage, perpetuating the original variety.4

Crop Diversity Endowment

The Crop Trust was established by Bioversity International on behalf of the CGIAR and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to help build and fund this global system in a sustainable way. Through the Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, the Crop Trust provides long-term grants to safeguard collections of unique and valuable crop diversity held in gene banks around the world. Priority is given to 25 crops among those listed in Annex 1 of the ITPGRFA, of particular importance to the food security of least developed countries. Thus far, approximately 95 percent of the endowment’s value has been provided by 14 national governments, whilst the remainder has been provided by the private sector. Gifts of any size are welcome to the Crop Diversity Endowment Fund to support this conservation work.5 It requires, on average, only $625 to conserve an accession in an international crop collection for everyone, forever, and what price is not worth paying for unfettered access to unique and often hidden traits found in particular crop varieties that will inevitably feed our future? To conclude, safeguarding the biodiversity of our crops is a life-sustaining mission both for the present and for the future, and the Crop Trust, alongside the world’s seed banks, are taking utmost care to actualise it. At Milling and Grain, we are therefore delighted to announce that our new columnist will be three-time former Norwegian Minister and current Crop Trust Executive Director, Ms Marie Haga.

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AUG 2017 - Milling and Grain magazine