Science Blog

Joining Hands for Conservation

Luigi Guarino| Director of Science and Programs

There’s a question I’m asked a lot when I give introductory talks about the Crop Trust: what do we have against in situ conservation?

In situ” is a bit of unlovely jargon for the sort of conservation that is done “in place”, that is, in national parks and other protected areas, and by farmers in their fields, gardens and orchards. Its very name sets it in opposition to ex situ conservation, which happens in very different places: genebanks, botanic gardens, zoos, and the like. In or out of place: the distinction couldn’t be clearer, could it? And the dichotomy, for good or ill, has become enshrined in documents such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and others. Including the constitution of the Crop Trust, which enjoins us to work exclusively on ex situ conservation.

But these apparently distinct ways of doing conservation are not in opposition, despite their names, unless you think that your left and right hands are in opposition. They are both working towards the same end – safeguarding biodiversity. And just because we focus on ex situ conservation at the Crop Trust it doesn’t mean that we think in situ conservation is unimportant.

Of course we think in situ conservation is important. Who wouldn’t? Who could possibly object to setting aside and protecting a beautiful landscape and all the biodiversity it contains for the benefit of future generations? Well, as it turns out, and surprising as that may seem, some people do object. Rhino poachers object. Some loggers of tropical hardwoods object. There will always be people who think it better to mine biodiversity for a quick profit now, rather than leaving it there to provide benefits into the future. And they, and the forces behind them, can be very powerful.

That’s where ex situ conservation comes in. Sure, it’s vitally important to designate national parks and nature reserves, and do all we can to protect them. But in case things go wrong, wouldn’t it be good if we could have a back-up store — in a safe, far-off place — of the biodiversity they contain? In case the poachers win in one park, and the tourists stop coming, would it not be good to have a rhino captive breeding programme somewhere?

The logic is even stronger for agricultural biodiversity, which by and large is easier and cheaper to store in a lab than rhinos. Who could possibly object to the idea of helping farmers maintain their own crop and livestock diversity? To have on their farms and in their communities, that is, just as many varieties of as many crops, and as many breeds of livestock, as they want. Well, some will say, farmers sometimes think they may be better off growing the latest modern variety, rather than their old heirlooms. And who are we to tell them otherwise? Fair enough. But in case they change their mind later on, would it not be a good idea to keep seeds of those heirlooms of theirs safely and cheaply in a genebank? Where, incidentally, they could also be available to researchers and breeders trying to understand and improve the crop, to the benefit of all farmers?

But why then set up an organization to work on strengthening only one hand? Well, I started this reflection while reading about the IUCN World Conservation Congress, which starts in Hawaii this week. It’s a huge gathering, in more ways than one. Thousands of people will attend, including President Obama, and he marked the occasion by designating the largest marine protected area in the world. And that right there is the reason for the Crop Trust’s mandate, in a way. Look at the programme for the congress. It is overwhelmingly about in situ conservation — and it has attracted President Obama, no less. There’s nothing similar for ex situ conservation.

No, we don’t have anything against in situ conservation of crop diversity at the Crop Trust. We just think that, just like everything else, it’s not perfect. There are many pressures out there working against it. Which we need to fight. But why not also help ensure that farmers continue to have access to as much diversity as possible, no matter what happens in their fields? Genebanks do that, and they deserve some attention too.

Of course, genebanks are not perfect either. Things go wrong with — and in – them, unfortunately. That’s why the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is important. (Coincidentally, there’s a new book out about the place.) But that’s also why farmers’ own efforts to maintain crop diversity are so important. The right and left hand need to know what the other is doing, and work better together. Maybe when President Obama has some spare time, he might help us do that, by visiting Svalbard.

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