Daily Development: In Crops We Trust
14 August 2015
Daily Development explores “global development and the people behind it”. In the following interview, Marie Haga, the Executive Director of the Crop Trust, discusses crop diversity, food security, and how and why we all must contribute to safeguarding this global common good.
Saving the world’s crops is no small task, yet the Global Crop Diversity Trust is trying to do just that. Created in 2004 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and CGIAR, a consortium of international agricultural research centres, the Crop Trust works to support the implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Commonly known as the Seed Treaty, it aims to ensure food security through the conservation, exchange and sustainable use of the world’s crop diversity. Leading the Crop Trust’s efforts is Marie Haga, Executive Director since March 2013.
DD: What is the mission of the Crop Trust and how are you working towards its achievement?
MH: The Crop Trust is an international organization working to safeguard and make available crop diversity, for ever. We do this by helping to build a sustainable and effective global system for the ex situ conservation and use of crop gene pools, with secure funding, efficient management, coordination among the world’s gene banks and strong links to users. We are raising an endowment, the Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, to ensure secure funding for the world’s key collections of crop diversity.
The Crop Trust also helps to maintain the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a fail-safe backup facility located some 1300 km north of the Arctic Circle. The vault provides the ultimate level of security for the crop diversity stored in the world’s gene banks. This work is carried out in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center. The vault holds more than 860 000 samples of crop diversity from more than 60 gene banks and from nearly every country in the world.
Another important effort we are leading is the collection and conservation of the wild relatives of a number of crops of global importance to food security, crops like wheat, rice, sorghum and millet, which are staple foods for many people around the world, and also a number of pulses, like beans, grasspea and cowpeas. This 10-year US$ 50 million initiative is the most systematic and comprehensive bid to conserve the wild cousins of crops on a global scale. These often have traits that are not found in the crop, and which can help the cultivated species adapt to climate change and the new stresses it is bringing.
Between 2007 and 2012, the Crop Trust supported the rescue of nearly 80 000 crop varieties in gene banks in 88 countries and 143 institutes, an effort which is sometimes cited as the largest and most successful biological rescue mission ever. This material might have been lost for ever, because the gene banks in which it was stored lacked the funds to regenerate and safety duplicate it.
DD: One of the sustainable development goals is to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. How is ensuring the genetic diversity of seeds and plants linked to this overarching goal?
MH: Conserving crop diversity is the first and most crucial step in ensuring food security. Today, agriculture around the world is facing its biggest challenge ever. Global temperatures are increasing and climate patterns, in particular rainfall, are becoming more uncertain, which is impacting production in many countries. For example, rice production is expected to decline by 10% for every one degree increase in temperature. Other factors, such as population growth, urbanization and food consumption trends, including an increasing taste for meat products, place enormous demands on land and crops. To respond to these challenges, agriculture needs to change and adapt. It can only do that if it continues to have access to the myriad options that genetic diversity provides. Plant breeders use the genetic diversity stored in the world’s gene banks to come up with the adapted, nutritious (and tasty) varieties of tomorrow.
DD: What are some of the main issues and challenges regarding crop diversity conservation?
MH: Although the science of seed conservation is fairly well established, we still have a way to go to put in place reliable techniques for the long-term storage of some crops in cryo-conservation. The safe transfer of material of these—and indeed other—crops is also still fraught with phytosanitary complications. Another challenge we face as a community is how to quantify the coverage of existing collections and accurately identify gaps in them. This will require stronger links to farm conservation efforts than currently exist. Ensuring efficient use of collections by breeders and others will require better and more data (including genotypic) on collections, and more comprehensive information systems for the management of these data on a global scale. Finally, we still look forward to full implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources by all Parties.
DD: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault seems like something from a science fiction novel. Why is such a facility so important for humanity?
MH: The vault represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. It is a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time. It was the recognition of the vulnerability of the world’s gene banks to the effects of natural and man-made disasters that sparked the idea of establishing the vault to serve as their backup. It is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply. Permafrost and thick rock ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without electrical power. Dry, frozen seeds can last for perhaps hundreds of years in some cases. The vault aims to preserve every crop variety available in the world’s gene banks.
DD: What can people do to support the global effort to safeguard crop diversity?
MH: There are many ways for people to get involved. First, become informed on the importance of crop diversity for food security. Then, inform others and encourage governments, foundations, and the private sector to put the safeguarding of crop diversity high on their agendas. Another way is for individuals to donate to the Crop Trust, to support our work. On average, an investment of just US$ 625 conserves a crop variety in an international collection, for ever. People can donate online at www.croptrust.org. They can also encourage their governments to contribute to the Crop Diversity Endowment Fund. Supporting our endowment is a one-off, environmentally impactful investment for governments, which will generate annual social and economic returns far into the future. To date, 14 countries have contributed nearly US $170 million to the Crop Diversity Endowment Fund. Finally, people can grow old heirloom varieties of crops themselves. They can get them from seed-saving organizations in many parts of the world. If you don’t have a green thumb, you can buy them from farmers who still grow them, and demand that supermarkets stock them.