Science Blog

Marathon Man

By LUIGI GUARINO | Director of Science and Programs

Quick, who won the marathon at the London Olympics? Come on, it was only a couple of weeks ago. No? Well, don’t worry, I can’t remember either. So here’s an easier question. Who won the 100 meter sprint? Yup, Usain Bolt, and there’s probably nobody on Earth who doesn’t know him. Why is that? To run 42-odd kilometres in just over 2 hours is no less an athletic achievement than to run 100 meters in under 10 seconds. So why the difference? I think it’s for the same reason genebanks struggle for funding.

We like our gratification now, our results yesterday, that’s why. When you make an argument for the importance of genebanks, you have to say that the seed that’s in them now will be useful sometime in the future; just give me the money to keep them safe, and wait and see. That’s a lot like saying watch this race wind its way along the streets of London, and in a couple of hours, if you’re still awake, you’ll see someone cross the finish line. Nobody’s going to take you up on it, not when Usain is warming up and mugging for the cameras.

Of course, I can give you examples of genebanks having been useful, vital even, in solving past problems. But recalling past Olympic marathon winners is even more difficult that remembering this latest one. And saying that Usain is not running at the same time as the marathoners doesn’t help much either. There’s always something else going on in the stadium that’s likely to give a more immediate thrill. Even if it’s the triple jump.

We just have to admit it. Conserving crop diversity in genebanks is a marathon. Actually it’s even worse than that. It’s a sports promoter’s worst nightmare, a race that never ends. Definitely not the kind of thing that lends itself to the usual three to five year project funding cycle. No wonder donors who profess interest in agricultural development have tended to look elsewhere for places to put their money.

Until recently, that is. The Trust’s endowment will ensure that our crops will always stay one step ahead in the never-ending race against pests, diseases and the changing climate. The donors to the CGIAR have committed themselves to completing the endowment, and have put money down on that promise, in the form of a five-year project for the funding of the international collections managed by the CGIAR centres on behalf of the world under Article 15 of the International Treaty on PGRFA. Yes, a marathoner will occasionally run a ten kilometre race to get ready for the big one.

And that latest Olympic marathon winner? Tiki Gelana, of Ethiopia. What, you were expecting me to say Stephen Kiprotich? Ah, the genebank as women’s sports: overlooked, underfunded, occasionally disparaged. No, on reflection, I better not go there.

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