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Documenting the Value of Genebanks

Woman manipulating lab samples

14 February 2018

By Melinda Smale and Nelissa Jamora

The CGIAR Genebank Platform, with support from the Crop Trust, is establishing a ‘Genebank Impacts Fellowship Program’.

The program, led by Melinda Smale and Nelissa Jamora, will provide evidence of the value of conserving crop diversity in the 11 international CGIAR genebanks and the Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees (CePaCT) of the Pacific Community. These genebanks hold some of the largest and most widely used collections of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) in the world.

Scientists have been assembling and managing ex situ collections of crop diversity in a systematic manner for over a century (see Vavilov 1997). They have conserved in genebanks hundreds of thousands of samples of traditional crop varieties and related wild species from a myriad of remote, dispersed locations. During the Green Revolution, heightened fears about the loss of potentially valuable crop varieties from farmers’ fields spurred these efforts (National Research Council 1972; Harlan 1972).

Today, the crop diversity housed in genebanks and shared with plant breeders, farmers and other researchers is the basis of our food security. The international genebanks currently conserve 750,000 accessions of cereals, grain legumes, forages, tree species, root and tuber crops, and bananas. The germplasm conserved in these genebanks holds rare and valuable traits such as tolerance to heat, salinity, and drought, resistance to emerging plant pathogens, and enhanced nutritional quality.

Genebanks derive their value from the genetic resources they conserve and make available to users. The most evident is the direct use of plant genetic resources by farmers and by scientists to breed new varieties or restore varieties lost due to war or natural disasters.

Twenty years ago, struck by claims that genebanks were underutilized “seed morgues,” a group of agricultural economists joined with CGIAR genebank managers to ask questions such as: How big should a collection be? Is it really necessary to conserve everything? What is meant by “use” of genebanks? How often do genebanks need to be “used” to justify the costs of conservation? What is the economic value of an accession? (see Evenson and Gollin 1997; Gollin, Smale and Skovmand 2000; Zohrabian et al. 2003; Johnson, Pachico and Voysest 2003; Koo, Pardey and Wright 2003).

While we know that such crop improvement would not have been possible without the crop diversity conserved in genebanks, genetic history of improved cultivars has, unfortunately, not been systematically documented and, consequently, the value of germplasm - and of the genebanks - is presently not fully appreciated.

Over the past decade, applied economics research on the impact of genebanks seems to have dwindled. That is why the Genebank Platform is launching the Genebank Impacts Fellowship, a six-month program that will generate the evidence for continued support to genebanks. The program will provide an opportunity for five or six fellows to gain experience in evaluating the impacts of key international genebanks. They will receive mentoring from a group of genebank managers and guidance from agricultural economists and conservation specialists. Fellows will develop and work on a specific evaluation project, in collaboration with one of the international genebanks. They will learn about the activities of the genebanks, as well as tools, frameworks, and methods that support PGRFA research and impact evaluation. The fellows will help advance our understanding of the value of the global genebank system in ensuring the availability of plant genetic materials for future breeders, scientists, and farmers.

We do not know what agricultural challenges our farmers will face in the future. We do not know which traits from the thousands of varieties in genebanks will help us overcome these challenges. This means we must save as much crop diversity as possible, as insurance to “what if” scenarios. History has taught us that material collected decades ago in one part of the world has provided solutions to problems that have risen in another part of the world. The teams of scientists working in genebanks around the world know this but not all stakeholders appreciate it. The Genebank Impacts Fellowship Program will help us document and increase awareness of the value of genebanks and reassure our donors and supporters that they are investing in something that makes a difference, now and in the future.

“Although genetic resources have strong public-goods characteristics, public genebanks often have struggled for adequate funding.” (Rubenstein, Smale and Widrlechner 2006)

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For more information, including overview of application requirements, visit: or email:

For information on the CGIAR genebanks, visit:

For information on SPC CePaCT, visit: 

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