Seeds for Resilience: A Chat with Project Manager Nora Castañeda-Álvarez
23 June 2020
The Crop Trust’s Seeds for Resilience project is supporting genebanks in Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana to improve their capacity to conserve their collections of crop diversity and make them available to scientists and farmers. In sub-Saharan Africa, where farmers face the combined challenges of climate change, malnutrition and a rising population, genebanks have an urgent task to help make farming system more diverse, and hence more resilient.
Dr. Nora Castañeda-Alvarez is leading the project. From her native Colombia all the way to Germany, and many places in between, Nora has committed her professional life to the conservation of the world’s food crops and their wild relatives.
How did you come to work at the Crop Trust?
I’ve always had an interest in seeds and seed conservation from a very early age. I liked the different shapes, sizes, and colors of seeds, but I also had a lot of concerns about environmental conservation. I was an undergrad in Colombia when the whole process that led to the Plant Treaty (ITPGRFA) was underway, and I was very interested in that.
While working at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), I learned of the Crop Trust. I applied for a position working on a new online database, and the next thing I knew, I had a job. A few years later, the Seeds for Resilience project came up, which was a new opportunity because I was very interested in working with national programs, which I hadn’t really done up to then.
The international genebanks have amazing collections. But there are also so many other crops and a lot of diversity that remains underrepresented in these collections. Some of that diversity is only in national genebanks, so Seeds for Resilience is my opportunity to contribute to making sure that diversity is protected too.
Nora Castañeda-Álvarez (front row, fourth from right) visiting the Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute (PGRRI) in Ghana. PGRRI’s mandate is to collect and conserve the plant genetic resources of Ghana and to coordinate plant genetic resource activities in the country. Photo: Nora Castaneda-Alvarez/Crop Trust
How would you describe Seeds for Resilience in a nutshell?
In Seeds for Resilience we are working with five national genebanks in Africa. Our work is to help them get access to the tools they need to enhance their processes so that the seeds they conserve are maintained in the best possible conditions and are therefore available in sufficient quantities for distribution to farmers and scientists who may need them.
We’re approaching this challenge in a number of different ways. For example, we help with buying new equipment, we organize external reviews and we facilitate exchange training programs. We want to support the genebanks to work with farmers on evaluation trials and to select seeds that can help them. SfR also helps foster awareness of the critical importance of genebanks in the partner countries.
How do national genebanks in Africa fit into the Crop Trust’s mission?
In the past, we’ve collaborated with dozens of national genebanks around the world, but mainly on very specific, relatively short-term activities, like collecting crop wild relatives or regenerating and safety-duplicating seeds, or documenting collections or providing small items of equipment.
This is the first time we have a chance to do something much more holistic with national genebanks. It’s the first time we can contribute to the long-term planning for these genebanks. Part of the work is to raise awareness of genebanks, especially among policymakers.
Nora Castañeda-Álvarez (right) and Paula Bramel (second from right) of the Crop Trust meet with staff of the Genetic Resources Research Institute (GeRRI) in Kenya.
What kinds of crops are found in these genebanks?
There’s a wider diversity of crops in these genebanks when compared to international collections. International genebanks usually have a mandate to focus on one to a few genepools. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), for example, is dedicated entirely to rice and its wild relatives only. But in national genebanks, you find lots and lots of crops –forages, fruit trees, roots and tubers, cereals, legumes, vegetables, everything.
In Ethiopia, for example, the genebank has samples of important native crops with few other collections elsewhere, like teff.
Another example is African eggplant. The SfR genebanks have a significant representation of this crop. But you won’t find samples of African eggplant in any CGIAR genebank. The SfR project is working to identify such gaps and help the genebanks get those crops safety duplicated.
Sweetpotato is also interesting. It turns out that diversity that isn’t available in the international collection is present in the genebank in Zambia.
Can you introduce us to the people working in these genebanks?
It’s always fulfilling to work with people who are so committed. Our partner genebanks are filled with engaged, responsive and passionate staff.
In the Ethiopian genebank, the staff is full of young technicians who are very enthusiastic and want to bring new ideas. In Kenya, it’s the same – they’re very interested in how technology can help and have been busy systematizing and organizing all their data in a single management software. In Ghana, they have a very enthusiastic in vitro group. The genebank in Nigeria has a committed and passionate botany team, which is unusual for a genebank, and in Zambia, they have a small team that complement each other very, very well and are all very hard-working and enthusiastic. You need that type of commitment for a project to succeed.
Seeds for Resilience is a five-year project. What do you hope SfR can accomplish in that time?
I – and indeed all our partners – would really like to see the link strengthened between genebanks and their users – farmers, local breeders and scientists. More accessions, like African eggplant and sweetpotato, must be safety duplicated, including in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. We can’t afford to lose any diversity.
Even though the project has a national focus, that’s not where this ends. This is all about a global system and how these national collections contribute to a world that is more food and nutritionally secure in the long term. That’s the promise of Seeds for Resilience, and of the Crop Trust.