In the Media
Press Release: Keeping the World Safe for Miso, Beans and Wild Relatives
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Keeping the World Safe for Miso Soup and Brazilian Beans, While Giving Sanctuary to Endangered Wild Crop Relatives,
Arctic Seed Vault Welcomes New Treasures as it Turns Six
Okayama University marks first Japanese deposit with valuable barley varieties; Global Crop Diversity Trust officials travel to Norway to mark organization’s 10th anniversary
Longyearbyen, Norway (26 February 2014)—Over 20,000 crops originating from over 100 countries will arrive this week at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), in time for the vault’s sixth birthday. The samples include a university collection of barley from earthquake-rattled Japan, crucial to everything from beer and whiskey to miso soup and summertime tea; an untamed assortment of wild relatives of rice, maize and wheat; exotic red okra from Tennessee via the Cherokee; and, from Brazil, a humble bean that launched a national cuisine.
The addition of this cornucopia of crops to the “Doomsday Seed Vault”—so called because it is protecting agricultural systems worldwide from disasters natural or manmade—means there are now 820,619 samples or “accessions” of food crops and their wild relatives stored deep in an Arctic mountain on Norway’s remote Svalbard archipelago. Their arrival coincides with the 10th anniversary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains the seed vault in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center.
“Our annual gatherings at the seed vault are a sort of winter Olympics of crop diversity, only we are not competing against each other but against the wide array of threats, natural and manmade, ranged against the diversity of food crops, diversity that is so crucial to the future of human civilization,” said Marie Haga, the Crop Trust’s executive director. “We are particularly excited to be welcoming our first seed deposits from Japan, which has been very active globally in the preservation of a wide array of crop species.”
The seed vault is a backup, housing duplicates of the living crop diversity collections kept in “genebanks” around the world and widely and regularly shared with plant breeders.
Among the contributors to the seed vault on its sixth birthday are the Barley Germplasm Center of Okayama University in Japan; the CGIAR’s International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish-language acronym CIMMYT) the International Potato Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIP); the Australian Grains Genebank and Australian Tropical Crops Collection; the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI); the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (known as Embrapa); and the Seed Savers Exchange of the United States.
Miso to Mugicha Tea, Whiskey to “Space Beer,” Japan Embraces Barley
The Barley Germplasm Center of Okayama University delivered duplicates of 575 samples or “accessions” of barley and ultimately plans to send some 5,000 for safe-keeping in the vault. Professor Kazuhiro Sato of the university’s Institute of Plant Science and Resources said barley experts in Japan became more concerned about the safety of the Japanese collection after the power failures that followed the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, as seeds must be kept carefully chilled in order to survive.
“If something bad happened to our genebank, these resources could be damaged permanently,” Professor Sato said. “Barley is very important not just for Japan but for the food security of the world—we have varieties that are productive even in dry conditions and in saline soils—so we need to do everything we can to ensure they always will be available to future generations.”
Barley is found throughout traditional Japanese cuisine or “washoku,” which recently became the second culinary tradition, after French cooking, to be designated a “cultural heritage” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In Japan, barley is fermented to make a type of traditional miso soup and is often served in rice dishes. In addition, roasted barley is used to make a cold tea called mugicha that is a popular beverage in the summer months.
Japanese distillers use barley to make a type of whiskey similar to Scotch and to make an increasingly popular beverage called Shōchū. It also is of course used to make beer. Several years ago, a scientist at Okayama University collaborated with Russian scientists to cultivate barley from grain originally grown on the International Space Station. It was then used by Japanese brewer Sapporo to make “Space Barley” beer. Meanwhile, barley is beginning to get more attention in places like the US due to its potential to lower cholesterol.
The barley seeds sent to Svalbard this week also include varieties from China, Korea and Nepal, even a variety that is roasted and mixed with yak butter to make Tibetan Tsamba. East Asia is a secondary center of genetic diversity for barley, and the wide-range of valuable traits—such as disease resistance, high quality and high yields—play a critical role for the region’s food security.
Taking a Walk on the Wild Side—Of Rice, Sorghum, Maize and Potatoes
The seed shipments arriving at Svalbard also illustrate important progress in the global effort to collect and protect the wild relatives of domesticated crops, many of which could be important sources of traits such as heat and drought tolerance and disease and pest resistance. These traits will be needed to help farmers adapt to stresses that are being intensified by climate change.
CIP delivered 195 samples of wild potato and 61 of wild sweet potato. While not edible, wild potatoes are nonetheless viewed as offering traits that can be used to create more nutritious, disease-resistant varieties of domestic potatoes. CIP has increased efforts to collect, duplicate and store wild potatoes in the wake of studies warning that by 2050 as many as 13 wild potato species could become extinct.
Meanwhile, CIMMYT has included wild relatives of maize, known as teosinte, in its latest shipment to the seed vault, a shipment that includes 1,946 samples of maize and 5,964 samples of wheat. And the Australian Grains Genebank has included in its shipment wild relatives of sorghum, rice and beans.
Securing More of the “Crown Jewels” of Agriculture
The large deposits being made from CIP and CIMMYT, both part of the CGIAR Consortium’s global agricultural research partnership, are indicative of the deepening partnership between the CGIAR and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Crop genebanks maintained by CGIAR centers house 700,000 publicly accessible samples of wheat, maize, rice, potato, banana, sorghum, forages, beans, and many other plants.
“CIMMYT alone already has sent a total of 123,057 maize and wheat accessions and we are well on our way to having 100 percent of our collection duplicated in the seed vault by 2021,” said Denise Costich, head of CIMMYT’s Maize Germplasm Bank.
While CIMMYT’s maize and wheat samples are maintained in its Wellhausen-Anderson Plant Genetic Resources Center in Mexico, they include varieties cultivated around the world and regularly shared with its 700 partner organizations. Overall, in the last 10 years, the 11 CGIAR centers have distributed more than one million samples of crop, forage and agroforestry resources to plant breeders and other researchers to develop new and more resilient varieties.
The CGIAR Consortium, with funding from the CGIAR Fund, recently entered into a US$109 million partnership with the Crop Trust to ensure the quality and availability of the international crop collections, which former Crop Trust executive director Cary Fowler has called the “crown jewels of international agriculture.” Their importance is recognized by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture by having a whole article all to themselves.
Every Seed Tells a Story
The sixth anniversary celebrations at the seed vault include several new contributions from the US-based Seed Savers Exchange, which is dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds, each with its own back story.
For example, the exchange has sent a variety of red okra that was given to it by a woman from Tennessee via her father-in-law, who said the seed was passed down through generations of Cherokee. The Seed Savers shipment also included “Rox Orange” sorghum, a variety that was developed in the first half of the 20th century specifically for making syrup. And it contributed a variety of cherry tomato called “Unger’s Hungarian” because the person after whom it is named brought it to the US when he emigrated from Hungary.
Finally, from Brazil’s Embrapa come 514 samples of what is simply known as “the common bean” but which plays an uncommonly prominent role in Brazilian cooking and culture. In much of Brazil, feijão preto, or black beans, are eaten with virtually every meal and are the crucial ingredient in Feijoada, a stew of beans and pork many consider to be Brazil’s national dish.
“Each and every single deposit into the vault provides an option for the future,” said Haga. “At a time of unprecedented demands on our natural environment, it is critical to conserve plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. This will guarantee farmers and plant breeders continued access to the raw materials they need to improve and adapt crops. Conserving crop diversity guarantees that the foundation of our agriculture is secure for the future. Drawing on a global coalition of governments and private donors, the Crop Trust is building an Endowment Fund, which will safeguard the diversity of the major food crops of the world in genebanks when complete.”
The Global Crop Diversity Trust is an interdependent international organization working to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity essential for food and agriculture, forever.
New Members of the Executive Board
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
For further information, or for interview requests, please contact:
Brian Lainoff at +49 171 185 6560 or email@example.com
Global Crop Diversity Trust Celebrates 10-Year Anniversary of
Ensuring a Stable, Affordable Global Food Supply;
Announces New Board Members
(Longyearbyen, Norway) 21 February 2014—Beginning its second decade ensuring the conservation and availability of crop diversity worldwide, the Global Crop Diversity Trust announced today six new members of its executive board.
The new members, who were elected by the governing body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and by the donor’s council of the Crop Trust, include Lewis Coleman (USA), the president and chief financial officer of DreamWorks Animation; Sir Peter Crane (United Kingdom), dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and former director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1999 to 2006; Prof. Gebisa Ejeta (Ethiopia), winner of the World Food Prize; Dr. Prem Lal Gautam (India), Presently, Vice Chancellor Career Point University, former chairperson for the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority for the Ministry of Agriculture in India and Vice-Chair of 5th Governing Body of the International Treaty; Dr. Maurício Antônio Lopes (Brazil), president of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, Embrapa; and Dr. Mary Ann P. Sayoc (Philippines), the general manager of East-West Seed Company, Inc. and president of the Philippine Seed Industry Association.
Over the next decade, the world’s population is expected to increase by nearly one billion, reaching 8 billion people. By 2050, it may pass 9 billion. Conservative estimates suggest an increase in global food demand over the same period of at least 50 percent.
"Conserving and making crop diversity available provides options. One of these options might just save the future of agriculture and the future of the food we eat," said Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust. “That is why the conservation of crop diversity has been discussed as a possible part of the forthcoming United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”
“Our common challenge is to produce more—and more nutritious food—and to do so on less land, with less water and less energy, and in an increasingly unpredictable and challenging climate,” Haga added. “A greater diversity of crops, stored in genebanks and available to all through an efficient global conservation system, is required to secure the future food supply at stable and affordable prices.”
In its first ten years, the Crop Trust has regenerated and rescued nearly 80,000 varieties of crops, funded 75 percent of the deposits stored safely in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, launched a 10-year project funded by the Norwegian government to collect, conserve and make available the wild relatives of crops grown in our fields today, and raised $170 million for its endowment fund to provide never-ending financial support to the world’s most diverse and used international crops collections.
“Securing the availability of food for a growing global population cannot be left to chance,” said Crane. “Completing the endowment of the Global Crop Diversity Trust is essential to ensure that the world’s most important crops, on which we all depend, will be available in perpetuity. Without access to crop diversity we will be unable to meet the agricultural challenges of the future.”
Ejeta added, “Food security has become an important item on the global agenda for humanity. Where worries abound about the sustainability of our global food systems, investing in seeds and seed systems provides the greatest insurance for the future well-being of human society.”
“Conserving our crops’ genetic resources is critical to guarantee the constant release of new varieties capable of withstanding the multiple challenges facing global food production: gradual changes in temperature and rainfall, pests and diseases, and even natural disasters,” said Dr. Lopes. "Considering this reality, Brazil, through Embrapa, was one of the initial supporters of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, wisely created to guarantee permanent funding of the international seed banks of the CGIAR and others. These institutions are critical to ensure the permanent availability of crop diversity for our sustainable development.”
The new members join an executive board consisting of outstanding individuals: Chairperson Ambassador Walter Fust (Switzerland), Vice-Chairperson Ambassador Emeritus Tim Fischer (Australia), Professor Klaus Töpfer (Germany), and Dr. Ren Wang (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).
All the members of the executive board are active in supporting the Crop Trust in fulfilling its mission, and in particular in reaching its endowment fund target. They play a key role in building awareness at the highest levels of the importance of ensuring the conservation and availability of global crop diversity, forever.
“Crop with little or no diversity is nothing but a living fossil,” said Gautam.
“When it comes to food security, you cannot think in short-term cycles,” said Fust. “Politicians need to invest in the future and think beyond their elected period of time. The Crop Trust endowment assures we feed the children of our grandchildren. And those future generations will look back saying, ‘you did the right thing.’”
“I am delighted to rejoin the Crop Trust executive board at a time when ensuring a global system for the conservation of crop diversity has never been more critical,” said Coleman.
Further Information on New Board Members:
- Lewis W. Coleman (United States of America) was a member of the executive board of the Crop Trust from 2007-2012 and is the chair of its finance and investment committee. Mr. Coleman serves as president and chief financial officer of DreamWorks Animation.
- Sir Peter Crane (United Kingdom) was a member of the executive board from (2007-2012). Sir Peter is the dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and was the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew from 1999-2006.
- Prof. Gebisa Ejeta (Ethiopia) is a distinguished professor of plant breeding and genetics and international agriculture at Purdue University. Dr. Ejeta was the recipient of the World Food Prize in 2009 and received a national medal of honor from the president of Ethiopia.
- Dr. Prem Lal Gautam (India) was the chairperson for the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority for the Ministry of Agriculture in India, chairman of the National Biodiversity Authority for the Ministry of Environment in India, and director of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. Dr. Gautam served on India’s delegation to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and was co-chair of the Bureau for the 5th Session of the International Treaty.
- Dr. Maurício Antônio Lopes (Brazil) is the president of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, Embrapa. He was a visiting scientist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and coordinator of Embrapa's Virtual Laboratory—Labex, in South Korea. Upon return to Brazil, he was nominated as the executive director of research and development of Embrapa until he became the president in 2012.
- Dr. Mary Ann P. Sayoc (Philippines) is the general manager of East-West Seed Company, Inc. and president of the Philippine Seed Industry Association. Dr. Sayoc was also the executive director of the Agricultural Training Institute of the Department of Agriculture of the Philippines. Dr. Sayoc is a member of the Sustainable Agriculture Committee of the International Seed Federation (ISF).
The Global Crop Diversity Trust is an independent international organization working to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity essential for food and agriculture, forever.
Andean potatoes help to feed the world
Written by Paul Cox
More than a billion people eat potatoes, the world's number three food. Protected by the Crop Trust, the genetic diversity of potatoes from South America helps fight a a tuber-rotting disease, keeping plants healthy and productive.
An infection known as “late blight” is probably the worst disease in agriculture, affecting potatoes as well as tomatoes and other plants. Like a botanical influenza, late blight constantly adapts to its environment and overcomes plant resistance. More than 160 years after the disease wiped out potato crops across Europe, it continues to threaten farmer livelihoods around the world.
Late blight causes an estimated US$10 billion worth of potato losses every year in the developing world, where the majority of potato farmers live. But it also remains a problem in the developed world, such as in Germany, where the average person eats 60 kilos of potatoes every year. European farmers need to spend millions on chemical fungicides to protect their potatoes against late blight.
Ireland's famine in the 1840s was so disastrous because the island relied on a single potato variety with no defenses against late blight. Conversely, potato diversity is the only sustainable weapon against the disease.
Breeders create new potato types that resist diseases. But they need the full genetic diversity of the potato and its wild relatives. Importantly, thousands of samples of this diversity are conserved at the International Potato Center, with essential long term funding from the Crop Trust.
There are over 4,000 edible varieties of potato in the world, most of which were created by farmers in the Andes of South America. The world's largest potato genebank, at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru, contains an even higher number of around 7,000 samples, including thousands of samples of related wild species. Such wild relatives of potato hold enormous genetic variety and potential.
The first cross with a wild relative to produce a blight-resistant potato was made in the early 1900s. However, the disease trumped this resistance over the next 50 years. In 1971, the English breeder Norman Simmonds declared:
“It looks as though potato breeding has generally been rather unsuccessful... The reason most probably lies in the narrowness of the genetic base of our north temperate breeding stocks.”
That same year, CIP began collecting wild and cultivated diversity in the Andes. Recent advances in breeding techniques have opened the door to even more of the wild gene pool. This is critical because breeders must continue to discover new sources of resistance as late blight and other diseases adapt.
More diversity is stewarded by Andean farmers, who still harvest potatoes in every shape, color and size. In Peru's 10,000 hectare Potato Park, established by six indigenous communities, farmers plant and harvest living diversity in communal genebanks. CIP has also partnered with these farmers since 2002, returning more than 400 disease-free cultivars to the fields.
Climate change is raising the stakes – for Andean farmers, for wild species, and for the world's potato crop as a whole.
Increasing temperatures have pushed potato farmers up the mountains in Peru year by year as diseases and pests creep up the slopes. Satellite mapping reveals that farmers have moved their fields an average of 150 meters up the Andes in the last 30 years. Unfortunately, there's only so much farther to climb.
Wild relatives, too, are on the retreat. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization forecasts that climate change may shrink the area where these wild species can grow by 70 percent. Under its Crop Wild Relatives project, the Crop Trust has mapped regions across nine countries where there are gaps in our collections of potato wild relatives. Scientists can't depend on this source of new genes being around forever; it needs to be conserved and studied now.
Most worryingly, climate change also seems to be powering the spread of late blight as warmer temperatures bring the disease to some new regions and raise its impacts in others. Potato growers in South America, Africa, Central Asia, and even Northern Europe are already seeing resurgent blight risk.
Some of the internationally collected diversity of potato and its wild relatives is already safeguarded forever in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Now the farmers of Peru's Potato Park are sending 1,500 of their own varieties to the Vault, protecting the genetic basis of their livelihoods into eternity.
Recognizing the threats from climate change and disease in the potato's homeland, the community conservationists of the Potato Park decided in 2011 to send more than 1,500 seed samples of their own varieties to be stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Here above the Arctic Circle, in a fail-safe underground facility managed by the Crop Trust, their agricultural heritage will be conserved alongside more than 780,000 other back-up samples of the world's major food crops.
This three-year task began with a learning process for the farmers. Potato is usually reproduced through cuttings, but the unmanned Vault can only store seeds. Thus, the farmers have learned from CIP how to pollinate their potatoes and collect seeds, packaging these in special envelopes for storage under the Artic ice.
Three sets of seed are being produced. One will be used by the farmers themselves in developing new varieties to face climate change. The second will be stored at the CIP genebank, and the third will be shipped to Svalbard. These latter sets will be sealed and will remain the property of the Potato Park's farmers in perpetuity. Through this collaboration, the Crop Trust is ensuring a future harvest for these and other farmers.
For more information on the International Potato Center (CIP), visit www.cipotato.org.
Cracking the Coconut
How can we conserve the world's largest crop seed?
Imagine farming a crop 20 meters tall, with seeds as big as your head. Now imagine trying to conserve this crop's diversity for the world.
Most crops can be conserved in the form of a few grams of dried seed in an envelope, but the coconut is different. Even if you can find a big enough envelope, coconuts can't be stored for more than a few months before they start to sprout. Then you have no choice but to plant them, which is why every "sample" in a coconut genebank is actually a veritable forest of up to a hundred palm trees, rather than an envelope of seeds in a cold room.
Amazingly, the International Coconut Genetic Resources Network (COGENT) is made up of 24 such genebanks across the tropics, looking after 1,680 of these samples in field collections.
More than 50 billion coconuts are harvested every year. But this will only continue if the world's coconut diversity can be shared to overcome new diseases, droughts and pests.
New diseases are appearing, and the familiar and feared Lethal Yellowing Disease threatens to overtake popular hybrids. Varieties that need plentiful water are struggling with longer droughts. Mites, caterpillars, beetles and weevils have devastated harvests in some regions. Coconut producers need new options, and only the world's remaining coconut diversity – scattered across four continents and three oceans – can provide this.
Sometimes the right palm is close at hand, as it was in India with the local variety Arasampatti Tall. Scientists in Aliyarnagar, India found that a single palm of this type yielded more than the major national varieties, with an average of 125 coconuts per year, while also weathering more serious droughts. The variety was multiplied and has been made available across the state of Tamil Nadu since 2002.
In other cases, varieties travel great distances to be used. The Malayan Dwarf palms are the source of much of the current resistance to Lethal Yellowing Disease, and provided the parents of hybrids grown around the world – notably through crosses made in Jamaica with a variety from Panama. However, back in Malaysia, other unique palms are now vanishing. More than half of the country's smallholder-managed coconut plantations were converted to other uses between 1981 and 2007, uprooting valuable diversity.
The Global Crop Diversity Trust has helped coconut collections regenerate and share rare diversity. With improved technologies, genebanks may one day be able to work with pea-sized plant embryos instead of whole coconuts and palms.
In Côte d'Ivoire the Crop Trust provided a grant to the Marc Delorme Research Station, which holds collections for Africa and the Indian Ocean, to re-plant 50 samples. These were fields of trees that were aging or simply growing too tall to work with.
To reproduce a variety faithfully, the mature palms have to be hand-pollinated – and as the flowers are in the crown of the tree, this means a very tall ladder and many dizzying climbs. This work is now complete, and the re-planted samples are back to a more manageable size.
Also funded by the Trust, Bioversity International and four coconut genebanks within the global network worked on technical guidelines for removing the tiny embryo from within the shell of a coconut, transporting it in test tubes, and eventually growing it into a new palm. In the future it may even be possible to cryo-preserve these embryos, freezing them in liquid nitrogen at -196°C to securely hold them for the future.
In more than 80 countries the coconut palm will continue to provide everything from food and drink to rope, cooking oil, cosmetics – and sustainable livelihoods for 10 million poor households.
Well adapted palms benefit the poorest in coconut growing regions, who rely on the trees for diverse products and income sources, often intercropping palms with their staple foods. New markets for high-grade virgin coconut oil and for coconut water, "nature's sports drink", have opened up in just the last few years.
Coconut palms also provide a global good in both adapting to and countering climate change. The trees flourish in extremely hot and salty environments, which are becoming more common. They are also efficient carbon sinks, turning atmospheric carbon back into (healthy, edible) oil.
Some locally favored varieties are adapted to specific needs. One sample regenerated and duplicated by Crop Trust partners was the Niu Afa palm of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, which yields the longest coconut in the world at over 45 centimeters. These were traditionally planted next to every house, where the long husk fibers could be made into cord to bind together beams in construction. In 1946, a Samoan chief explained the importance of this resource to the Irish travel writer Robert Gibbings:
"In your country, only a few men can make nails, but in Samoa, everyone can make nails.”
Samoan building methods may have changed since then, but the coconut continues to be a source of self-reliance and cultural identity for the smallholders of the tropics. Conserving global coconut diversity against climate change, pests and diseases will keep this spirit alive.
Lessons From a Survivor
The world may seem to revolve around maize, rice, wheat and rye, but sorghum is always growing in the margins.
Sorghum comes in a strong fifth among the world's important cereal crops – and nothing else matches its diversity of forms and uses.
A stalwart of hot and dry areas, sorghum demands few inputs and provides more than just grain in return. Farmers cultivate sorghum for porridges, breads and noodles; for animal fodder; to brew beer and wine; to extract sweet syrup; and to make baskets and brooms. The often towering stems can be used to build fences and houses, and after everything else is gone, the dry stubble fuels cooking fires.
90% of area planted under sorghum is in the developing world, and often in hot, marginal and drought-prone regions, where crops like maize or wheat would be a foolish bet. However, the crop's wide range of adaptations allow the right types to be grown under all sorts of conditions, from cold latitudes to lofty altitudes.
In some African farming systems, sorghum even provides its own bird repellent. Farmers have long kept hungry birds away from their crops by selecting varieties with a high tannin content, making the grain much less appetizing. But the farmers know the secret: the sorghum loses its bitterness when it's cooked or fermented.
The breadth of diversity created by farmers and environments around the world is what keeps sorghum going in tough times. Sorghum research has progressed by using, and maintaining, this genetic wealth.
The major international collection of sorghum is held in the genebank of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India, where more than 38,000 samples are conserved. National collections exceeding 4,000 samples are also kept by the USA, India, China, Brazil, Russia, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Australia and Sudan. Perhaps most unique is the collection of broomcorn at the Institute of Field and Vegetable Crops in Serbia, which conserves 152 samples of the special long-panicled sorghum used for centuries to make broom bristles.
Drawing on these collections, breeders have boosted production greatly by making wide crosses between the five races of sorghum existing in different parts of the world. In India, crosses between the Caudatum, Guinea and Durra races have combined their strengths and generated hybrid vigor. The benefits were measured in a 40% income boost for millions of farmers.
On the other hand, such improvements have brought their own problems. As high-yielding varieties began to spread, it became clear that the large heads of tightly packed grain were liable to become moldy in seasons of high rain. Grain mold, along with downy mildew and other fungal diseases, continue to cause crop losses and make grain unmarketable and unhealthy to eat. Much sorghum research in recent decades has gone into solving this problem, and some of the answers have been found in farmers' own mold-resistant landraces.
The Crop Trust has supported work to keep sorghum diverse. In 21 countries, genebanks have collected, regenerated and safety duplicated material, hunted for important traits, and brought material to farmers to test.
ICRISAT sent 245 samples from its sorghum collection in India to partners in the US, where the lines were evaluated for resistance to three fungal diseases: downy mildew, head smut and anthracnose. Only fourteen lines among these revealed triple protection against all three. These were DNA fingerprinted to identify unique genetic sources of resistance, and to bring these into use in breeding programs.
In Tanzania, researchers from the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute and National Plant Genetic Resources Centre evaluated 200 accessions from the country's collection for tolerance to drought and aluminum toxicity. Aluminum in acid soils is estimated to limit crop production on 30-40% of arable land, and most of the material evaluated in Tanzania became stunted under high concentrations. However, six accessions showed better growth, representing rare and valuable sources of aluminum tolerance.
Meanwhile, a series of activities in Ghana, Mali and Nigeria opened up exchanges between farmers and genebanks. In Ghana the CSIR Savanna Agricultural Research Institute collected sorghum from farmers across three regions and tested it alongside the Institute's existing genebank materials. Farmers in the country's Upper East region then experimented with selected lines in participatory on-farm evaluations, and the favorites were shared widely through field days.
At home in heat and drought, sorghum is due for its time in the spotlight. As it helps farmers adapt, it may even come to fuel a lower-carbon economy.
As more regions become hotter and dryer, there is every reason to take sorghum as seriously as the other major cereal crops. Its ability to produce food and fodder through prolonged droughts is a life-saver for millions of poor households. However, sorghum can also yield spectacularly under good conditions. Egypt, the crop’s center of origin, reports annual yields of more than 5,500 kg per hectare.
More and more sorghum is also being grown for energy. The grain can be fermented to produce carbon-neutral ethanol fuel, and the stems of sweet sorghum varieties, used in the past to produce delicious syrup, are proving to be an even better energy source. In countries like Brazil and India, the stems of these towering varieties are providing feedstock for biofuel at a lower input cost than either sugarcane or maize. And with a similar grain yield to other popular varieties, it's possible that many farmers will be able to grow these without sacrificing the secure grain harvest that has made sorghum the lifeline of millions.
The Crop Trust recognizes the crucial role that some of the wild relatives of sorghum could play for future sorghum improvement — especially with regards to helping the sorghum adapt to climate change. Sorghum was therefore included as a focal crop in the Crop Trust's global initiative on crop wild relatives. In this context, the Crop Trust organized a gathering of world experts on sorghum improvement in Queensland (Australia) to discuss the promising breeding and research approaches that could help better utilize this wild diversity for sorghum improvement in the future.
Story written by Paul Cox. For more information on the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) please click here.