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Supporting the Application of the FAO Genebank Standards

Illustration of scientist holding wheat

By Luigi Guarino

27 November 2018

How do genebank managers know they’re doing all they can to maintain the quality and availability of their collections?

Perhaps the most important tool at their disposal is the publication Genebank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, produced by FAO in 2014 under the guidance of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (the Commission). Generally referred to as “the Genebank Standards,” it is widely recognized as setting the benchmark for current scientific and technical best practices, helping to implement key treaties and conventions, such as the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. But are they actually being followed?

To find out, FAO carried out a global survey of national, regional and international genebanks between August 2017 and January 2018. Roughly 100 responses were received from over 50 countries and from five international organizations; the respondents included genebank managers, curators of collections, documentation officers, as well as other technical genebank staff. The major result that emerged from the survey was that, although the Genebank Standards is generally considered a valuable reference document, more practical technical and operational guidelines are needed to apply its recommendations effectively. Survey results also suggested that some thematic areas of the document required updating (e.g. the use of molecular markers in genebank management).

In response to this feedback, FAO, in consultation with the Global Crop Diversity Trust and technical experts, initiated the development of a practical guide to the application of the Genebank Standards. Key action steps in the workflow of routine genebank operations were identified based on the processes outlined in the document. These action steps aim to simplify its implementation as a quality management tool for ex situ conservation of orthodox seeds, field genebanks, and in vitro collections. In particular, the practical guidelines provide genebanks with a step-by-step process for the implementation of quality standards within a flexible quality management framework that allows customized improvement.

To validate the results, FAO and the Crop Trust organized an expert consultation in Bonn, Germany on 10-12 April 2018. The participants included 16 genebank managers from national and regional genebanks from around the world. These technical experts agreed that presenting the information contained in the Genebank Standards in a more concise and more user-friendly format, detailing the different action steps of the genebank workflow in a sequential manner, would help practitioners and facilitate more widespread adoption of quality standards.

FAO presented the draft action steps to the Intergovernmental Technical Working Group for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Working Group) at its Ninth Session in July 2018. The Working Group invited Commission Members and observers to submit written comments to the Secretariat and requested FAO to revise the document in light of the comments received. The revised draft action steps will be presented to the Commission at its next Regular Session in February 2019.

Based on the Commission’s feedback, it is expected that FAO will finalize comprehensive practical guides for genebanks. These will describe up-to-date action steps and provide tools to facilitate conservation of orthodox seeds, field genebanks, and in vitro collections, respectively. It is also foreseen that similar practical guides for the conservation of recalcitrant seeds, for cryopreservation, and for the storage of DNA samples, will be developed as these become more mainstream, and applicable protocols become increasingly available.

The views expressed in this information product are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Crop Trust. The Crop Trust is committed to publishing a diversity of opinions on crop diversity conservation and use.

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