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Genebanks Meet Donors, Live Happily Ever After

Illustration of scientist holding wheat

26 June 2012

Luigi Guarino

I’m not saying for a moment that the world of crop diversity conservation is anything like a screwball comedy. But I do sometimes wish meet-cutes happened in that world as Billy Wilder would have written them.

A meet-cute is an old screenwriter’s term for the moment when the two romantic leads in a screwball comedy meet, sparks fly, and all kinds of stuff starts to happen, before it all works itself out and ends happily – eventually. A classic example appears in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Gary Cooper’s stingy American millionaire goes to buy pajamas in a department store. It’s on the French Riviera, but that’s beside the point. What’s important is that he only wants the top. Because he doesn’t wear pajama bottoms. And he’s stingy. Poor, filially dutiful Claudette Colbert goes to the same store to buy pajama bottoms for her father, who never wears the tops, naturally. They meet; it’s cute. It’s a meet-cute.

Mr Wilder, the director, tells it better. But you get the picture. Now, take a recent discussion initiated by Dr Bert Visser, who runs the national genebank of the Netherlands – more formally the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands (CGN). Bert is thinking about introducing a handling fee for germplasm distribution. The proposal is controversial, as you’ll see from these comments, but Bert’s budget just can’t cope any more with the volume of requests for material. What can he do?

Well, consider next the equally recent announcement that the EU is contributing $5 million to the Benefit-sharing Fund of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). An important, generous gesture, and much needed. But isn’t this a case, as in that Riviera department store, where the interests of two parties really coincide, if they but saw it? A European genebank needs to cover its expenditures; and the European Union wants to expose its generosity towards the conservation crop diversity. I can’t help thinking that Billy Wilder would have engineered a meet-cute here.

Ah, but, you’ll say, CGN is a national facility. It would be cynical of the EU to divert international development funds to a genebank serving essentially national needs. In fact, CGN is one of the few nationally-funded genebanks around the world which serves a global clientele, dispatching crop diversity the world over. It’s a lynchpin of the European crop genebank network (ECPGR), and contributes to important international training and documentation initiatives. If the Dutch government is happy to contribute to the ITPGRFA’s Benefit-sharing Fund, via the EU – as well it should – should it not also make sure CGN’s genebank is properly funded?

That’s unfair. The Dutch government fully recognizes and supports the global role of genebanks. It has contributed $2.5 million to the Trust, which provides long-term funding to the genebanks managed by the CGIAR’s Centres. The donors to the CGIAR – which include the Netherlands – have recently agreed to a five-year plan for the funding of these genebanks, in which the Trust will have a key oversight role. The CGIAR genebanks cater to a client base that is even more diverse, global and numerous than CGN’s. They manage and exchange the bulk of the crop diversity in the ITPGRFA’s Multilateral System, in fact. But their funding has been even more uncertain – from year to year – than many national genebanks. It is now more secure than it has even been, and it will stay that way. But the endowment is still not complete. Other donors please take note: meet-cutes can be arranged.

What to do about CGN, though? Well, one thought might be to transfer some of its material to a relevant CGIAR Centre. Or is that too screwball?

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