In the Media
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.
More Than Meets the Crop
Feeding a Growing World - Despite Climate Change
Food security depends on crop diversity
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%. Feeding our growing global population is not optional, however hard. Global food production faces unprecedented challenges due to rising temperatures, more severe floods and droughts, and new pests and plant diseases.
Thus we must increase food production, primarily through higher plant productivity as we cannot count on adding arable land. Historically, half of the increase in crop yields has come from conventional genetic improvement: Breeders identify useful genes in existing varieties of food plants and recombine them to develop new varieties that are more productive, more nutritious and more resistant to stresses - like higher temperatures or less water.
We know that conserving the vast diversity within crops globally is the only way to guarantee that farmers and plant breeders will have the raw material needed to adapt to whatever the future brings. And while securing the world’s food supply will require much work beyond crop diversity conservation – such as further advances in crop science, building efficient markets, and reducing the waste of food – none of this can be effective if the genetic base of our food supply is lost.
Our common challenge is to produce more - and more nutritious - food on less land, with less water and less energy, and in an increasingly unpredictable weather. A greater diversity of genetic plant resources, 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. Ensuring biodiversity in agriculture is a prerequisite for food security.
Coping with climate change
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change may soon suggest a 2% drop in agricultural output per decade. Seen against further population growth and sharply rising demand for food, we are facing a creeping disaster. A climate-resilient agriculture is an adaptable agriculture, built on crop diversity: Plants from anywhere in the world may hold the answers to climate challenges, including the wild relatives of our domesticated crops that can survive under extreme conditions.
We will need the full array of this diversity - collected, characterized and available within a global system - if we hope to adapt to climate conditions not seen before. Within this diversity there will be plant types that flourish and yield with lower inputs and, in some cases, more carbon is sequestered in the field. Whether mitigating the causes of climate change or preparing for its impacts, the world’s crop diversity represents a heritage of human ingenuity that helps counter the man-made threat of our age.
Nature’s original diversity is a treasure worth protecting in itself. Yet much genetic diversity was lost as agriculture developed, and cultivated species may contain only a fraction of the genetic diversity found in their wild relatives. Natural diversity includes genes for resistance to high temperatures, drought, and pests and diseases. Genetic diversity is also critical for improving taste and nutritional composition, and boosting yield: Wild species of crops are an important source of genes for plant improvement.
While the number of traditional plant varieties that have disappeared is not known, many can only be found in the seed collections established over the past fifty years. They conserve and make available genetic material, offering this through their databases to plant breeders, researchers and farmers who look among thousands of samples of crop diversity for sources of resistance to high temperatures and disease. Yet it can take upwards of ten years to develop a better plant variety, hence the urgency to secure the basis of agriculture today.
Assisting the rural poor
Agricultural production is the lifeline for many rural populations in poor countries. And access to affordable and nutritious food is indispensible for human and economic development. Crop diversity lays the basis for offering higher yielding and more reliable food plants to support farmers and consumers in low-income countries.
Protecting a global common good
The Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust) works to safeguard the most important collections of crop diversity in genebanks around the world. There is universal recognition of the importance of crop diversity. The work of the Crop Trust responds to multiple calls for action from the international community over the last three decades.
The Crop Trust is an essential element of the funding strategy of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which came into force in 2004 and has been ratified by 129 countries. The Treaty was created because “plant genetic resources for food and agriculture are a common concern of all countries, in that all countries depend very largely on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture that originated elsewhere.” This basic interdependence requires a global system to secure our common heritage and to make it accessible and useful to all.
This global system for ex situ conservation in genebanks must be rational – i.e. based on defined roles and international collaboration, and also cost-effective – i.e. avoiding unnecessary duplication of efforts among players. It also requires strong information systems to ensure the accessibility and active use of the plant genetic material.
The cost of conserving forever
Crop collections require constant curation and care: Even brief disruptions can expose plant genetic material to the risk of permanent loss. The ex situ conservation of crop diversity is by its nature a long-term, never-ending task. Only long-term, sustainable financial support from an endowment fund can secure a global system that is too important to leave to chance.
The Crop Trust is building an endowment of $850 million, which will generate some $34 million in annual income. This will safeguard the diversity of the major food crops of the world in genebanks, and thereby the basis for food security. At a cost of $34 million per year to the world community, this is unquestionably a highly affordable insurance policy.
The Crop Trust is committed to build its endowment over the next five years. By 2015, an international donors conference will be asked to add $350 million to the current endowment fund of $150 million, bringing this to $500 million so as to protect all of the key international crop collections. By 2018, an additional $350 million will be sought so as to reach $850 million in the endowment fund and to safeguard a wider spectrum of the world’s agricultural diversity found in national collections and in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
It is an urgent need to safeguard the building blocks for the future of agriculture in a long-term perspective. This task is essential for food security, it is not controversial, we know how to do it, and it is doable for only $34 million a year. Let us not wait any longer and do it, now.
Former Board Members
Margaret Catley-Carlson (Canada), Member from 2007-2012
Chair of the Global Water Partnership, and the International Advisory Committee for Group Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, Ms. Catley-Carlson is a member of the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board, the Rosenberg Forum, and of the Council of Advisors of the World Food Prize. She serves on the Boards of the Biblioteca Alexandrina, IMWI (the International Center for Water Resource Management); the IFDC (Fertilizer Management) and IIED - the International Institute for Environment and Development. She has been chair of the ICARDA and CABI Boards and the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, Vice Chair of the IDRC Board and a commissioner of Water for the 21st Century. She was President of the Canadian International Development Agency 1983-89; Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF in New York 1981-1983; President of the Population Council in New York 1993-98; and Deputy Minister of the Department of Health and Welfare of Canada 1989-92. Ms. Catley-Carlson is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Cary Fowler, former Executive Director 2007-2012
Prior to his tenure as the Executive Director of the Crop Trust, Dr. Cary Fowler was Professor and Director of Research in the Department for International Environment & Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He was also a Senior Advisor to the Director General of Bioversity International. In this latter role, he represented the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in negotiations on the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
Cary's career in the conservation and use of crop diversity spans 30 years. He was Program Director for the National Sharecroppers Fund / Rural Advancement Fund, a US-based NGO engaged in plant genetic resources education and advocacy. In 1985 he was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (the "Alternative Nobel Prize") in a ceremony in the Swedish Parliament. In the 1990s, he headed the International Conference and Programme on Plant Genetic Resources at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), which produced the UN's first ever global assessment of the state of the world's plant genetic resources. He drafted and supervised negotiations of FAO's Global Plan of Action for Plant Genetic Resources, adopted by 150 countries in 1996. That same year he served as Special Assistant to the Secretary General of the World Food Summit. During the negotiation process of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, Cary chaired a series of off-the-record retreats with key delegates, sponsored by the Nordic countries. He is a past-member of the National Plant Genetic Resources Board of the U.S. and the Board of Trustees of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico, and is currently Chair of the International Advisory Council of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. He holds a position as Associate Curator at the Memphis City Family of Museums.
Jorio Dauster (Brazil), Member from 2007-2010
Ambassador Jorio Dauster is the Board Chairman of Brasil Ecodiesel. He is a former Ambassador of Brazil to the European Union, and Chief Negotiator of Brazil's foreign debt for the Ministry of Economy, Planning and Finance. Ambassador Dauster has also served as President of the Brazilian Coffee Institute and as Coordinator of the Project for the Modernization of Brazil's Patent System.
Adel El-Beltagy (Egypt), Member from 2007-2011
Prof. Dr. Adel El-Beltagy was currently the Chair of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR). He was Chairman of the International Dryland Development Commission (IDDC) and Professor at the Faculty of Agriculture/Ain Shams University He was Director General of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) (1995-2006); Director/Board Chairman of Agricultural Research Center, Egypt (1991-1995); Fellow of the University of Wales (1993); Chairman for the Scientific Technical Council of the International SAHARA and SAHEL OBSERVATORY (SSO) (1993-2002); First Under-Secretary of State for Land Reclamation, Egypt (1986-1991). Foreign Member of the Russian academy of Agricultural Sciences, Moscow; Academician (Foreign Member) of the Tajik Academy of Agricultural Sciences; and Honorable Academician of Kyrgyz Agrarian Academy; He is Honorable Professor of the Scientific Council of Azerbaijan Agricultural Academy; Fellow of Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), and has been awarded Al-Istiklal Medal by His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Hussein of Jordan; He has authored/co-authored more than 140 scientific publications.
Emile Frison (Belgium), Member from 2009-2013
Dr. Emile Frison is the Director General of Bioversity International. A plant pathologist by training, Dr. Frison served as a Senior Scientist with Bioversity where he held special responsibility for the health of samples of crop diversity. He then served as Director of Bioversity's regional office for Europe and, until his appointment to the top position at Bioversity, was Director of the organization's International Network for the Improvement of Banana and Plantain in Montpellier, France, promoting research on bananas and plantains, the world's fourth most important staple crop. As Director General of Bioversity, Dr. Frison recently lead the organization, its stakeholders and partners in the formulation of a new strategic vision for Bioversity, in which nutrition and agricultural biodiversity will play an important role in the overall goal of reducing hunger and poverty in a sustainable manner. He is author and co-author of over 150 scientific publications and is a member of several scientific societies.
John Lovett (Australia), Member from 2007-2012
Professor John Lovett is the Chairperson of the Cooperative Research Centre for National Plant Biosecurity, Australia. He has held professorships at the University of Tasmania and the University of New England, of which he now is a Professor Emeritus. Professor Lovett has previously served as Chairperson of the Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Accounting and of the Oilseeds Research Council, as Managing Director of the Grains Research and Development Cooperation and as President of the Australian Society of Agronomy.
Wangari Maathai (Kenya), Member from 2007-2011
Professor Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots environmental organization which has assisted women and their families in planting more than 35 million trees across Kenya to protect the environment and promote sustainable livelihoods. She was a Member of Parliament and a former Assistant Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Kenya. Among the many honors and awards Wangari Maathai has received are the Right Livelihood Award (1984); the Global 500 Roll of Honor (1991); the Goldman Environmental Prize (1991); the Africa Prize (1991); the Edinburgh Medal (1993); the Sophie Prize (2004) and the Legion d'Honneur (2006).
It is with great sadness that we learned of Professor Wangari Maathai's passing on 25 September 2011. We are immensely grateful for her dedication and commitment to our cause, for which she found space in a life full of important works.
Mr. Karl Erik Olsson (Sweden), Member from 2007-2010
Mr. Olsson was the Minister of Agriculture in Sweden, a member of Parliament, and a member of the European Parliament.
Dr. Shivaji Pandey (India), Member from 2007-2009
Dr. Pandey worked for over 30 years in international agricultural research and development, serving as a scientist, Regional representative for South America, Director of Maize Program, and Director of African Livelihoods Program at CIMMYT. In 2005 Dr. Pandey joined the UN FAO as Director of Agricultural Support Systems Division and was appointed Director of Plant Production and Protection Division in 2006.
Dr. Mangala Rai (India), Member from 2007-2009
Dr. Rai was the Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). Dr. Rai also served on the Executive Board of CIMMYT, ICRISAT, and served on the Executive Council of the CGIAR. In 2008, Dr. Rai was elected as President of the prestigious National Academy of Agricultural Sciences in India for a term of three years.
Modibo Tiémoko Traoré (Mali), Member from 2009-2011
Dr. Modibo Tiémoko Traoré, a former Minister for Rural Development with the Government of Mali, was the FAO Assistant Director-General charged with the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department. He joined FAO as Regional Representative for Africa after heading the African Union's Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources for three years. A veterinarian and livestock expert, Dr. Traoré was also Mali's Ambassador to the People's Republic of China between 2000 and 2005. Mr Traoré, a former National Director of Mali's Livestock and Veterinary Services was his country's Minister for Rural Development (Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries) between 1994 and 2000, and also held responsibility for the Environment and Water Resources.