What is a genebank?
It is a facility for maintaining crop diversity. Usually, this diversity is in the form of seeds, stored and conserved in a frozen state. Some genebanks use normal household freezers for this purpose. The ideal temperature is between -10 and -20C. Each different variety is stored in its own container, such as a bottle, can, or a sealed aluminium foil package.
How many genebanks are there?
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN lists about 1400 collections, ranging in size from a single sample to the U.S. collection with 464,000 different samples. Major genebanks include those in China, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea, Germany and Canada (in that order) as well as those operated by Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
How many samples do genebanks currently house?
Approximately 6.5 million collectively. Some 1-2 million are estimated to be “distinct.” The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the largest single collection in the world. It has a capacity of 4.5 million samples, giving ample room to accommodate all existing diversity plus new variation as it arises in the future.
Who uses genebanks?
Plant breeders and researchers are the major users of genebanks. The diversity stored in genebanks is the raw material for plant breeding and for a great deal of basic biological research. Several hundred thousand samples are distributed annually for such purposes.
Is it really necessary to conserve so many different crop varieties?
Different types have different characteristics, not all of which are visible to the eye – genetic traits that provide disease resistance, adaptability to various soils and climates, different tastes and nutritional qualities. If we ever need to use the potentially unique and sometimes hidden traits found in a particular variety, then we must conserve the variety – for as long as we want that option. So, the simple answer is “Yes!”.
What are the threats to genebanks and their collections?
The biggest threat probably comes from lack of secure funding. Poor management can also be a major problem. In addition, genebanks are subject to natural disasters, wars and civil strife, accidents, etc. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides insurance against all of these as well as larger and more catastrophic events.
How many varieties have been lost?
It is impossible to know, since there is no way of ascertaining how many different types have existed in the past. But, surely, much diversity has already been lost. Of the 7100 named varieties of apples grown in the U.S. in the 1800s, more than 6800 no longer exist. Extinction is forever. Different varieties of wheat and potato can disappear as permanently as the dinosaurs.