Science Blog

The Genebank Pushover

Luigi Guarino

The Copenhagen Consensus sounds like a minor Robert Ludlum novel – perhaps something from his unjustly neglected, more sedate late period – but it’s actually far scarier. The consensus is that of economists, about how to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Ah, yes. Economics, the dismal science. Economists: people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. By all means let’s let them loose on climate change and poverty and malnutrition. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it’s actually not as bad an idea as it sounds – and not just because the alternatives are even more dismal. Because who would you prefer to be making decisions about such important things? Politicians? They’ll just go for whatever they think will get them elected tomorrow. Scientists? They just want the latest, coolest, shiniest gadget to play with. Civil society? First you’d have to find it. What we want here is the biggest, quickest, loudest bang for our ever-shrinking buck. Money is short, time is shorter: tough decisions need to be made. Economics is about the most efficient use of scarce resources. Economists know how to calculate the cost of things, and the return on investment, why not let them follow the money, and see where that takes us?

It turns out it takes us to some unexpected, intriguing places. A few years ago a group of eminent economists retreated to their Danish eyrie to consider the question: If we had an extra $75 billion to put to good use, which problems would we solve first? The answer surprised a lot of people. The problem to address first was malnutrition, because the best value-for-money intervention turned out to be micronutrient supplements for children (vitamin A and zinc).

This year they looked again at ten of the biggest issues now facing the planet: armed conflict, biodiversity loss, chronic disease, climate change, education, hunger and malnutrition, infectious disease, natural disasters, population growth, water and sanitation. Malnutrition again came top, and we could certainly say something about that from our crop diversity perspective, but in honour of the recent International Day of Biodiversity, let’s look at what they came up with for biodiversity loss.

One result is fairly straightforward: halt deforestation. But, perhaps surprisingly, increasing investment in research and development in agriculture was found to have a slightly better cost to benefit ratio. That’s because it will increase crop and livestock production on existing agricultural land, which will in turn diminish the pressure on nature. What kind of investment? Well, we know from other recent work that crop improvement through plant breeding can bring in quite a return. And you see where I’m going with this now, right? Breeders need the raw material of crop diversity to do their job. And they get that from genebanks.

So your buck invested in genebanks gives you a double bang. You get to conserve the pristine natural habitats we all love, and that would get converted to agriculture if yields on existing land did not rise. And you get to conserve agricultural biodiversity directly, as seeds in a fridge, easy for breeders to get to and use to raise those yields. That’s a deal the most dismal of economists would find difficult to resist.

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