Science Blog

A Game of Two Halves

Luigi Guarino| Director of Science and Programs

Watching the England football team succumb again a few days ago, it struck me that what the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is trying to do is to make conserving and using crop diversity more like running a rich club and less like managing the national team.

Let me explain. Gary Lineker, a saintly English ex-footballer and now a pundit, once gave a description of the game he excelled at that was every bit as penetrating as one of his darting runs into the box. Soccer, he said, “is a game for twenty-two people that run around, play the ball, and one referee who makes a slew of mistakes, and in the end Germany always wins.” Germany dumping Italy out of the championship is, well, normal. Sure, extraordinarily talented players, motivational managers, innovative tactics and new training methods can make a difference – for a while: see Iceland. But in the long run, Holland underachieves, France implodes, and Germany wins.

Compare that with what happens in club football. Given the resources of Russian oligarchs or Middle Eastern potentates, English clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City can go from chump to champ, of Europe and England respectively, in a few years by buying the best the world of football has to offer. Meanwhile, England, with only England’s limited resources to call on, goes out, again.

A national agricultural development programme cannot make progress if – like a national football team – it only has access to crop diversity from that one country. No country’s agriculture consists entirely of crops that were domesticated and diversified within what would become its borders. And even countries that are mega-diverse for a particular crop don’t have all its diversity: a time will inevitably come when they will need a bit of diversity that they don’t have. And sooner rather than later, what with climate change and all.

A country’s crop breeding programmes need to be run like a rich football club, bringing in talent from wherever it may be found, and blending these disparate raw materials into a winning whole. For plant breeders, the International Treaty levels the playing field, making sure that they can access diversity wherever it is stored. Join the Treaty’s club, the Multilateral System, and you too could have the young, newly thawed out, Gary Lineker on your team, and no transfer free.

In football, it’s only the clubs with a sugar-daddy who can play this game. Unfortunately, it’s easier to find sugar-daddies for football clubs than for genebanks. So the Trust’s endowment is providing long-term support for the international collections of crop diversity managed by the CGIAR Centres, which form the bulk of the diversity in the Treaty’s Multilateral System.

The endowment is not yet fully in place. There’s a good medium-term solution to that, the Genebanks CRP, but what we really need is to complete the endowment. That’s what will allow the Linekers of crop diversity to play on forever. And that “forever” is important. As Gary Lineker also said: “The World Cup is every 4 years, so it’s going to be a perennial problem.” Crop improvement is a perennial problem. I hope the sugar daddies of agricultural research are listening.

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