Anticipating the Genebank Pop

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The following blog, written by Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group member Cary Fowler, was adapted from the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s Crop Topics.

A decade ago, internet mania coursed through the world’s equity markets. For a brief time, Cisco, a maker of internet routers and switchers (does anyone really know what they do?) had the highest market value of any company in the world. Stock markets wobbled with intoxication in a huge and historic investment bubble. The pop was inevitable. So was the hangover.

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In a climate-changing world in which no country has the requisite diversity to underpin crop adaptation, each country is dependent on the global system. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Today we have a genebank bubble. Someone needs to say it. The message will not be welcomed, just as warnings of the internet bubble were derisively dismissed while the bubble and the risk grew larger and larger.

What’s a genebank bubble and what evidence do we have of one?

In the early 1970s, the grand old men and women associated with the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources suggested that the world needed 6-7 international genebanks to conserve crop diversity and supply the needs of plant breeders and researchers. This, presumably, was in addition to a few good genebanks already operating. Today, FAO’s registry of genebanks lists 1700 facilities! Were the experts off by a factor of 250? Or do we have a bubble?

It is tempting to equate more genebanks with more and better conservation. But in the case of genebanks, the establishment of more and more facilities has not automatically translated into expanded conservation because (a.) many of those facilities were stocked with samples already being stored elsewhere, and/ or (b.) professional and financial capacity were insufficient to ensure effective conservation over time.

The motivations for establishing so many facilities were certainly positive. Scientists and administrators realized crop diversity was endangered and wanted to save it. But, as political interest heightened, saving something important evolved into shielding it from others. Sharing between farmers, scientists and countries – the very act that lay at the heart of the establishment of the banks – morphed into a negative.

Today, the tiny “network” of genebanks to which the early experts referred provides the overwhelming majority of samples distributed to farmers and breeders. Very little escapes from other collections. Dozens of “important” genebanks have not conveyed samples even to domestic researchers, much less foreign ones in recent years.

It is a strange business model.

Here is where the “bubble” analogy becomes important. Can so many genebanks continue to persist and be supported in their present form without providing a clear verifiable service? Are they not headed towards a “pop?”

The Global System Is the National System

Countries, of course, are free to build as many genebanks as they wish. They can stock them with samples obtained from other more generous genebanks. They can replenish those samples whenever their own are lost through negligence or accident. They can keep a tight hold over what they have either because of lack of will to allow anything out, or lack of resources, or lack of requests. In the absence of effective oversight, the bubble can expand, just as with financial markets.

Twice in 15 years – once in a legally binding Treaty – countries have solemnly pledged to cooperate to reduce unnecessary duplication, and to work together to create an effective, efficient and sustainable system for conserving crop diversity. Elements of such a global conservation system already exist. But with the major players struggling to obtain adequate sustainable financing to fulfill their global role of conserving most of the 1.5 million unique accessions, you can safely conclude that the world isn’t about to shower the additional 1600-plus genebanks with money to house 6 million additional samples.

If the world really needs and can only support a finite number of genebanks, what happens if it tries – politically and financially – to save and support a hundred times more? Another analogy springs to mind, but it’s one I’ve never particularly liked – Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons,” aka lifeboat ethics. The lifeboat that takes in everyone sinks. Saving everyone sacrifices everyone. Though the lifeboat analogy may be apt, it sounds heartless. Those who dare utter it do so at their own peril.

So how do I get myself out of this self-laid trap? With two propositions.

First, the global community must summon the political will to secure crop diversity though the efficient, effective and sustainable system it has already agreed to create. But never mind honoring commitments; this is self-interest! In a climate-changing world in which no country has the requisite diversity to underpin crop adaptation, each country is dependent on the global system. Facing the future, do countries want to count on 1700 uncoordinated, often ineffective, and surely under-funded genebanks, or on a more streamlined and efficient system? It’s a no-brainer.

Second, the creation of a real global system actually opens lucrative and productive opportunities for the many smaller facilities. There is a conservation pipeline along which genebanks are currently very poorly distributed. Instead of duplicating each other’s activities – literally conserving the same samples already conserved elsewhere – what if these genebanks, with their intimate knowledge of indigenous experience and wisdom, local conditions and needs, and in cooperation with more advanced institutions, moved even closer to farmers, breeders and researchers and actively searched out, acquired, screened, developed, stored and distributed diversity of particular and current relevance to those clients? What if they really had a critical role in the global-to-farmer crop improvement pipeline? Wouldn’t this strengthen their position?

While many smaller genebanks are overwhelmed by the challenge of providing high quality long-term conservation, larger institutions have failed to grasp the potential of partnership and bypassed the opportunity to collaborate with them on the regeneration, evaluation, and distribution of samples.

One possible division of labor would have smaller facilities link with major institutions (international and national) to offer real and valuable services. Both are fortified institutionally and financially. Together they facilitate the emergence of a workable global system to everyone’s benefit.

No bubbles. No pop. And yet, champagne.

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