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G.O.A.L. — RAISING GENEBANK STANDARDS

Janny van Beem, Genebank Quality Specialist at the Crop Trust, sums up the results of the first Genebank Operations and Advanced Learning (GOAL) workshop held in Cali, Colombia earlier this year.

“Our ultimate goal as custodians for humanity of these invaluable genetic resources is to conserve them at the highest standard possible. It was the purpose of this workshop to inspect the many elements that contribute to this goal and to provide evidence of achieving and maintaining these standards.”

Who participated in the first GOAL workshop, and to what ends?

The workshop brought together 35 genebank specialists from CIP, CIMMYT, CIAT, USDA, and the national agricultural research institutes of Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. All the participants work in genebanks, and are committed to making them more effective and efficient. The workshop was designed to help them do that.

What prompted this event?

During the 2014 Annual Genebank Managers (AGM) meeting, it was agreed that a formal quality management system should be put in place to ensure the highest conservation standards in CGIAR genebanks. Some genebanks are ISO-certified, but that’s an expensive option.

We decided on a three-pronged approach that includes capacity building for staff, upgrading of genebank infrastructure up to agreed levels, and validation of existing methodologies. We are tackling these simultaneously to come up with a quality management system that is tailor-made for genebanks and relatively straightforward and inexpensive to implement.

That sounds like a lot to do in a single workshop.

The workshop was output-driven. We all knew beforehand the outputs that we needed to achieve during what turned out to be a very intensive five-days. We set ourselves time constraint within which specific outputs needed to be reached, whether it was the re-examination of the acquisition policy, figuring out how to increase efficiency in regeneration, or how to include germplasm distribution information in existing databases. It was hard work, but we got it all done.

What aspects of genebank management were on the agenda?

Everything. We addressed the key operational procedures in genebanks, such as acquisition, viability and phytosanitary testing, information management and germplasm distribution. We also explored other, less well understood, at least by our group, aspects of quality management, such as risk management and succession planning.

Succession planning in particular is a big thing. There are a number of really knowledgeable genebank staff around who have been in the CG system for more than 30 years – from taxonomists to specialists in seed processing. It’s really important that they transfer that huge accumulated knowledge to the genebank specialists of the future. We had both at the workshop, and it was great to see the interaction between them.

Did you have time to go into a lot of detail?

We pretty much dissected each procedure, and considered all the necessary supporting aspects too, so that now we have a complete package associated with every procedure. So, for example, both acquisition and distribution of material are not just technical procedures, but must conform to specific legal rules.

Data management emerged as a key topic during the workshop. We had a group of information systems experts and data managers who continuously underscored the message that data management is central to all procedures across the genebank. You need good data management to have an effective and efficient genebank. If you have good data management you can still end up with a bad genebank, I suppose, but you can’t have a good genebank without good data management.

What data management tool in particular did you look at?

We devoted a day to GRIN-Global, which is a piece of software custom-made to manage genebank data. It’s what the national genebank system of the US is going to use. The international genebanks that participated in this workshop – CIMMYT, CIAT and CIP – are either in the process of adopting the software or are planning to do so in the near future. The workshop provided the genebank staff with the opportunity to share ideas regarding how best to manage the transition from their existing system to GRIN-Global. Getting to learn a new program is always painful. But in this way we learn from each other, and share the pain.

You mentioned the legal aspects of distribution; how important is it for genebank staff to understand these?

It’s vital. During the GOAL workshop, Ruaraidh Sackville-Hamilton, head of the genebank at IRRI, highlighted the importance of understanding the legal obligations that come with taking care of these collections on behalf of humanity. Ruaraidh explained the implications of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) and its Standard Material Transfer Agreement, the main international instrument we work with, but also those of the Nagoya Protocol on the Convention on Biological Diversity. His presentation provided everybody with a very useful roadmap for navigating what can seem a very confusing jungle of legal language.

This workshop was the first in the GOAL series – when and where are the next ones?

The next GOAL workshop will take place in West Africa, and is scheduled for early 2016. In addition to seed conservation, we want to look at in vitro methods on that occasion. The third workshop is scheduled for late 2016 and will take place in East Africa, where we will target field conservation.

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