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Australian Deposit into Svalbard and Australia's Crop Wild Relatives

12 March 2014


Indigenous crop wild relatives, brassica, oats among seeds that find safe haven in Svalbard Global Seed Vault

It is cold and white outside. The wind blows snowflakes sideways. But the members of the Australian delegation happily brave the weather. On this February 26, 2014 afternoon, they are far from home, at the other end of the globe, 1300 km north of the Artic Circle. They have come to Longyearbyen, Norway, to personally make the latest Australian seed deposit into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. And with the fail-safe back-up facility as a backdrop, they stand and smile for the cameras. This is a historic moment – for them, for Australia, and the world.

"These seeds could one day hold the key to boosting productivity or solving the challenges of drought, frost and disease," says Australian Grains Genebank (AGG) leader Sally Norton.

She is now inside the Vault, wearing the obligatory blue hardhat. She stands behind 16 blue boxes -- Australia’s largest deposit yet, brought from the AGG base in Horsham, western Victoria, and from the Australian Pastures Genebank in Adelaide, South Australia.

Accompanying Dr. Norton are AGG Curator Bob Redden, Australian Pastures Genebank Curator Steve Hughes and Victorian farmer and the Crawford Fund board member Tony Gregson, among others.

Joining them is former Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer, who currently is Vice-Chair of the Executive Board of the Crop Trust. Mr. Fischer has personally contributed to the seed collections being deposited today. Ventura wheat and Graza oat seeds come from his farm and have been sealed and saved inside blue box #10, which he personally places inside the cold storage unit that houses more than 820,000 safety duplicates of seeds from all over the world.

Dr. Norton and the other members of the delegation place the remaining boxes in the cold room shelves. They then separate in small groups and silently walk the long halls that are filled, floor to ceiling, with boxes.

“Seeds from Korea, Canada, Peru, Germany, Mexico – the largest collection of crop diversity from across the globe is safeguarded here,” says Mr. Fischer, who assures his compatriots that "the work carried out by the Global Crop Diversity Trust is vital for food security. In times of climatic chaos, the world needs seed diversity and seed security more than ever before.”

Adding to this diversity, the present shipment includes Australian indigenous wild seed samples, says Dr. Norton.

“Relatives of sorghum, rice and beans were included, along with the canola, oats, lupins and both temperate and tropical pastures.” She further explains “as Australia is a net importer of crop species, this represents the first deposit of truly Australian indigenous seed material, and is a valuable resource for global food production".

After a few minutes, the delegation exits the storage unit and slowly makes it s way up the long tunnel that six years ago was carved out of one of the many mountains in Svalbard to create the Vault.

Outside the wind is still. Night has fallen. And the Australian shipment has reached its final destination. It is also the last the 20,000+ samples originating from over 100 countries that were deposited in the Vault this past February.


The Global Crop Diversity Trust works with partners around the world to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for global food security. In 2003 funding from the Australian Government and the Grains Research and Development Corporation helped support the Crop Trust Endowment Fund.

“We have been successful in raising $170 million for the endowment so far”, says Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust. “It is a good beginning, but we need roughly three times as much to safeguard the world’s major collections forever.”


Though it is relatively close to the Siam-Malaya-Javan region, home to crops such as banana, sugar cane, coconut, breadfruit and mangosteen, Australia has no native crops aside from Macadamia nut. All other foods grown there originally came from elsewhere. Wheat is a good example: with more than 29 millions tons produced in 2012, Australia is one of the world’s largest producers, but the crop was domesticated in the Middle East. The same concept is true for all of Australia’s most important crops, including barley, sugar cane, rapeseed, cotton, sorghum, grapes, and potatoes.

It therefore may be surprising to realize that Australia contains a wealth of wild relatives of a number of important crops. “Cousins” to the major foods we eat, crop wild relatives contain a diversity of important traits for disease resistance and yield improvement, and may provide critical contributions to breeding for adaptation to climate change.

The crop wild relatives of Australia include over 150 taxa related to more than 10 crops of major significance -- from the world's most important oil crop (soybean), and one of the world's most important cereals (rice), to crops of major importance for food security in Sub-Saharan Africa (sorghum) and South Asia (pigeon pea).

In Australia, the greatest wealth of these wild genetic resources occurs in the northern, tropical region, from Western Australia, Northern Territory, and Queensland. And although crop wild relatives are found in all states, this northern region is also where the highest priorities for further collecting are to be found.


Australia has a high number of priority species that still need to be collected.  The map above shows hotspots for collecting needs for crop wild relatives in Australia that are in the greatest need of collecting.

Some of these crop wild relatives have already served as important donors of traits for crop improvement, such as wild rice Oryza rufipogon, which has proved extremely important to rice for traits such as pest and disease resistance. Others await discovery of their particular value for crop breeding.

Included in the 16 boxes that were recently deposited in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are indigenous Australian native plants. “Australia's first contribution to the global genepool of genetic resources being truly Australian material”, says Australian Grains Genebank (AGG) leader Sally Norton.

This is a major step for Australia in the conservation of wild relatives, which will undoubtedly influence the future of the country’s – and the world’s – agriculture.


The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has carried out a gap analysis that helps prioritize the species and locations of crop wild relatives that are in most need of collection. 
The work is part of a project led by the Global Crop Diversity Trust in partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and is supported by the Government of Norway. This 10-year project focuses on the wild species in the genepools of 26 crops of major importance to food security that fall under Annex 1 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

  • Developed under the project “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting, and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives” and building upon its activities, the Crop Wild Relatives website is dedicated to compiling and providing information on the taxonomy, distribution, conservation status and breeding potential of the wild relatives of major crops.
  • A “Prioritized crop wild relative inventory to help underpin global food security” was published last October in Biological Conservation. The study brings together critical primary information on crop wild relatives’ species identities—distributions and relatedness information— on a global scale in order to inform conservation efforts.

For More Information on Australia’s work on the conservation of crop diversity:

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