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Climate change causes a run on banks, for crop genes (commentary)

  • While the impacts of climate change are putting pressure on agriculture, they are also making the conservation of the world’s most important crops more challenging.
  • Even industrialized nations like Portugal, Spain and Italy–as well as research institutes and farmers–are now requesting not only samples of food crops to breed climate change-adapted varieties, but also material for forage crops.
  • In light of this, a new op-ed argues that it’s critical that governments and funders continue to invest in, and support, the work of crop genebanks.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

As climate change brings extreme conditions to more parts of the world, the requests to draw down the savings kept in crop genebanks are evolving. European countries facing rising temperatures like Portugal, Spain and Italy, as well as research institutes and even farmers are requesting not only samples of food crops to breed hardier varieties, but also forages, the plants that feed livestock and maintain healthy soils.

And while the impacts of climate change are piling the pressure on agriculture, they are also making the conservation of the world’s most important crops more challenging, meaning the ongoing regeneration of genetic material is more important than ever. As more countries seek to leverage the genetic advantages of archived crop varieties to bolster food systems in the face of the climate crisis, it is critical that governments and funding organizations continue to invest in and support the work of crop genebanks.

To take one example, the newly upgraded Future Seeds genebank in Colombia has a collection of some 23,000 samples of tropical forages, which offer a range of valuable traits from reducing methane emitted by livestock to increasing the ability of soil to store carbon and nitrogen. These forages play a vital role in circular and sustainable agricultural systems by contributing to soil fertility, crop cycles and feed for the livestock that in turn provide both nutrient-rich food and fertilizer. To maintain this collection, and others, research institutes and international agencies must focus on three key priorities.

Marcela Santaella, genebank operations manager at International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Image courtesy of CIAT.

The first is improving methods and capacity for conservation. Different crops and crop varieties require different conditions for long-term storage. For example, forages and beans are mainly conserved as seeds rather than cuttings but some species can only be stored for up to 15 years before they deteriorate.

Techniques like cryopreservation, or storage in liquid nitrogen at -196C (-320F), can provide an alternative way to conserve these precious seeds for decades longer, making them available to crop breeders responding to the climate extremes of the future for years to come. The new Future Seeds facility offers greater capacity to make use of cryopreservation, which is especially important for moving cassava cuttings to long-term storage, as this collection is currently maintained as clonal in vitro plants, and can only be conserved for one to two years.

Second, researchers need ongoing support to accelerate the characterization of the back catalogue of staple tropical crops, including forages. Traditionally, the process of identifying the genetic characteristics of different varieties has been a time-consuming manual task, meaning the majority of the genebank’s collection has not been analyzed for potentially beneficial traits. Most characterization efforts to date have been part of ad hoc projects, resulting in a non-systematic cataloguing of attributes.

However, advances in machine learning have the potential to streamline this process and analyze huge volumes of crop samples to give researchers and breeders a better idea of what these varieties are all good for in a climate crisis.

Finally, governments and international authorities must prioritize greater levels of support for the collection and sharing of crop material across borders to ensure everyone can benefit from these shared, public resources. Most of the current collection managed by CGIAR dates from the 1970s and 80s, when scientists were more easily able to locate and collect samples from their original ecosystems and habitats.

See related: World’s biggest tropical crop bank opens in Colombia, taking food research high tech

Colombia’s new Future Seeds facility holds the world’s largest collection of bean varieties. Image courtesy of Juan Pablo Marin/Alliance of Bioversity International/CIAT.

Locating species in the wild and tracking traditional varieties cultivated decades ago has since become more challenging with urbanization and the migration of farmers to cities. At the same time, strict biosecurity regulations that impact the movement of samples between countries can delay conservation and breeding efforts. Harmonizing and building trust around the standards and protocols that control the movement of genetic material to avoid spreading crop disease is essential to ensure collections like the Future Seeds genebank can be maintained around the world.

Avoiding crop extinctions is not simply a romantic notion. The genetic information contained in different species is akin to the building blocks of our civilization. And while the majority of the genetic collection is in long-term storage, a changing climate means that some of the long-preserved traits are becoming increasingly relevant.

The true value of seed genebanks is now coming to pass, and the savings made decades ago are bearing fruit. But it is critical that these dividends are reinvested to ensure these resources are maintained, refreshed, and replenished for the challenges that lie ahead.

Marcela Santaella is Genebank Operations and Quality Manager at CIAT.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Author Anna Lappé and social scientist Philipe Bujold discuss the power and promise of agroecology to feed the world, listen here: