Science Blog

Genebanks Are Forever

Luigi Guarino | Director of Science and Programs

The international agricultural research centers have been through a lot during the almost 75 years that have gone by since the first tentative steps were taken towards establishing the first one in Mexico with some funding from the Rockefeller Foundation.

There have been mergers and name changes, budget crunches and strategic re-thinks for the individual centers. And, from 1971 when it was founded, lots of structuring and restructuring – with the obligatory accompanying re-branding – for the club to which they all belong. I remember when it used to be referred to as the CGIAR, and even Future Harvest. If calling it the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research seems like something we did a lifetime ago, like using those rotary dial phones, it’s because it was.

But the mission of CGIAR has stayed pretty much the same throughout these changes, even as its name became an acronym, and the definite article was dropped. That mission is simply put: it is nourishing the world, sustainably. A recent editorial in the journal Nature Plants described the work of the centers rather well:

They were created around the post-war hope that international cooperation could prevent war and decrease the historical tendency of mankind to destroy itself by every means possible. Multinational, but based in the countries where their work is needed most, and close to the centre of origin of the crops and the wild relatives. At the vanguard of international scientific research, but able to understand the needs of local small farmers. Financed by rich countries to help mostly poor farmers and make them self-sufficient. With the education of international students, researchers and technicians as a priority, to spread the knowledge in a virtuous cycle.

Another thing has stayed the same, through fat times and lean. If anything can be said to be at the very center of the centers’ work, as it were, it is still their eleven genebanks.

CGIAR centers conserve and make available to plant breeders, researchers (both inside and outside their gates) and farmers the largest, most intensely used collection of crop diversity in the world. These genebanks have a central role in underpinning global food and nutritional security, a fact that has been recognized by the international community by their specific inclusion in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA).

It’s not a perfect analogy, I know, but it does in a way make sense to call them the “crown jewels,” as people have done from time to time. The genebanks really are precious. I don’t know if CGIAR will mark the diamond anniversary next year of the Office of Special Studies, which became CIMMYT in 1963. But it would be appropriate. Like diamonds, genebanks are forever.

Which is not to say there have not been changes for them too, a little polishing here and the occasional re-setting there. For a long time somewhat isolated entities, the need was eventually recognized for an element of coordination among the CGIAR genebanks. The CGIAR Research Program for Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections (the Genebank CRP), which has just come to an end after five years, was the intellectual descendant of earlier system-building efforts. And it has resulted in big steps forward, from online reporting to the barcoding of all processes.

There is more change coming, for both CGIAR as a whole, and the international collections. Actually, it’s already here. A new set of CGIAR Research Programs started in 2017. And the Genebank CRP has morphed into the Genebank Platform.

But, again, there is continuity in the midst of change. The Genebank Platform, like the Genebank CRP before it, is still a partnership between CGIAR and the Crop Trust. And it still aims to ensure the long-term safety and ready availability of something like three quarters of a million samples of crops, forages and trees, according to international standards and in fulfillment of legal obligations under the ITPGRFA.

That editorial in Nature Plants said the CGIAR centers are saving the world. Maybe that’s hyperbole. But they’re certainly saving the world’s crop diversity, so that it will continue to be available for all to use, to improve people’s lives. We at the Crop Trust are proud to be helping them.

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