Underfunded Genebanks Key To Crop Diversity

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa August 29, 2002 (ENS) - A lack of funding for agricultural gene banks could lead to the loss of a large proportion of the world's collection of crop diversity, warns a new report from researchers from the Department of Agricultural Sciences at Imperial College in London. Seeds from some of the world's most unusual lettuces are stored in a gene bank at Salinas, California.

In a report released today at the United Nations (UN) World Summit on Sustainable Development, professor Jeff Waage, head of the department, warns that many genebanks are now unable to fulfill basic conservation functions, putting at risk the crop diversity that underpins a stable and sustainable world food supply.

The report, "Crop diversity at risk: the case for sustaining crop collections," provides the latest picture of genebank performance. It compares data from 99 countries collected by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2000 to similar data from 151 governments collected by the FAO in 1996.

The researchers found that although the number of plant samples held in crop diversity collections has increased in 66 percent of the studied countries, genebank budgets have been cut back in 25 percent of countries and remained static in another 35 percent.

Samples held in genebanks must be periodically planted and new seed harvested in order to keep seed stocks viable, and a backlog in this regeneration process is a strong indication of a critical lack of resources, the authors warn. The report notes that more than half of developing countries and 27 percent of developed countries have reported an increase in the number of plant samples in urgent need of regeneration.

"Most people assume the crop diversity that scientists have already collected from cultivated fields is safe. We found that this is not necessarily the case," said Professor Waage. "In fact, many critical genebank collections are in a precarious state. If these collections are allowed to fail, then we will lose the valuable crop diversity they contain forever."

In order to safeguard future crop diversity, the report calls for the establishment of a permanent international endowment, funded by public and private sources, to support the maintenance of the world's most critical collections.

"The data points us to one major conclusion: genebanks can no longer rely on uncertain annual sources of funding - as most do now - to fulfill their perpetual responsibility for maintaining the diversity of plants that are essential for food security," Waage explained.

Genebanks hold a significant portion of the world's agricultural heritage and provide the last sanctuary for a growing number of crop wild relatives. These include the cassava, a starchy root crop that is a staple food in parts of Africa and Asia, and the tomato, whose wild relatives are approaching extinction due to deforestation and development. Wild species of coffee, grape and wheat also join the list of wild crop relatives facing genetic erosion - a process that can lead to extinction.

On farm losses are also increasing as farmers give up traditional crop varieties in favor of high yielding modern types. The FAO estimates that about three-quarters of the original varieties of agricultural crops have been lost from farm fields since 1900. Such losses include wheat varieties in China, maize in Mexico and soybean in the United States.

The wheat species Triticum monococcum gives an example of the vital role that genebanks can play. Although widely grown for bread throughout the ancient Roman Empire, it is now almost lost, with relic populations existing only in Turkey and possibly Yemen.

However, because of its high fiber content, T. monococcum is once again in demand and a project has been established to bring back this crop using samples stored in genebanks.

"Both on farm diversity and wild crop relatives are sources of rare genetic traits needed for coping with environmental stress, plant disease and pests," said Waage. "Knowing this, countries have undertaken important efforts to expand their crop diversity collections. A main task now is to ensure the safety of those collections and their accessibility to farmers, plant breeders and researchers."

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