For thousands of years, since the beginning of agriculture, farmers have been nurturing, developing and exchanging crop diversity. They are not always successful in this endeavour.
Yet, since about a hundred years ago, farmers and scientists have been assembling collections of crop diversity in genebanks. These crop collections provide a back-up for farmers who lose diversity and offer the raw material for breeding new crop varieties.
Unfortunately, these crop collections are also often threatened, most typically by inadequate funding. The Crop Trust has supported collecting expeditions and rescue operations across the world to ensure that crop diversity in farmers’ fields and in genebanks is not lost forever.
However well managed a crop collection is, occasionally a disaster will strike. When it does, the Crop Trust is ready to respond.
Take Typhoon Xangsane, which swept through the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand in September 2006, causing at least 279 deaths and over half a billion dollars in damage.
At the Philippine National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory (NPGRL), a flood of water and mud up to two meters high inundated the facility, submerging equipment and destroying unique seed samples. The cold storage units, seed drying room, stand-by generators, air-conditioners, dehumidifiers and vehicles were rendered inoperable. It was critical that the infrastructure and equipment be repaired or replaced as soon as possible.
The Crop Trust, in coordination with Bioversity International, quickly funded the restoration of the genebank and rescued the collection. Unfortunately, parts of the collection were not duplicated anywhere else, and consequently varieties that had evolved over centuries in response to the unique requirements of Philippine agriculture, and perhaps containing traits useful for agriculture elsewhere, have been lost.
Other threats are more systemic. Inadequate funding and technical constraints can mean that material is not maintained according to recommended standards, and thus deteriorates over time. An analysis of the constraints faced by crop collections around the world, as articulated in global crop strategies, enabled the Crop Trust to begin to identify the most at-risk material.
With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Australia’s Grains Research and Development Corporation, the Crop Trust launched what has been described as the largest and most successful biological rescue mission ever. Nearly 80,000 unique seed and vegetative samples of crops from 77 countries were saved and duplicated in a second genebank and backed-up at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.