The National, Tuesday February 11th, 2014
By JAMES LARAKI
THE Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the UN has launched a new publication aimed at improving conservation of food crops, many of which are crucial to the world’s food and nutrition security.
The publication, Genebank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, outlines voluntary, international standards for the many repositories or genebanks around the world that store seeds and other materials used to reproduce plants, as well as living plants in the field.
Plant genetic resources are a strategic resource at the heart of agricultural crop production.
Their efficient conservation and use is critical to safe guard food and nutritional security, for now and in the future.
But to meet this challenge will require a continuous availability of improved crop varieties adapted to a particular agro-ecosystem.
The loss of genetic diversity reduces the options for sustainably managing resilient agriculture, in the face of adverse environments, and rapidly changing climate.
Well-managed genebanks safeguard genetic diversity and make it available to breeders.
Gene banks are a type of biorepository which preserves genetic material aimed at conserving agricultural biodiversity.
Gene banks are used to store and conserve the plant genetic resources of major crop plants and their crop wild relatives.
There are about 1,750 gene banks all over the world, with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway being probably the most famous one.
More than 7 million samples of seeds, tissues and other plant-propagating materials from food crops, along with their wild relatives, are safeguarded in these genebanks.
The standards outlined in the publication are designed to guide users in implementing the most appropriate technologies and procedures for the collection, conservation and documentation of crop diversity.
Their wide application supports research that could stem the loss of biodiversity and boost sustainability in agriculture, both necessary conditions for feeding a world population that is expected to exceed 9 billion by the year 2050.
Well-managed genebanks help to preserve genetic diversity and make it available to breeders and other scientists, who can then use it to develop and share improved varieties, including those adapted to particular agro-ecological conditions.
“As the world’s population grows and continues to face a wide range of climate, environmental and other challenges, maintaining a healthy variety of seeds and other plant genetic resources for the benefit of people in all countries will be essential to keeping agricultural and food systems sustainable and resilient, generation after generation,” FAO assistant director-general, Ren Wang, said when launching the publication.
Genebanks will help bridge the past and the future by ensuring the continued availability of plant genetic resources for research and for breeding new varieties that meet the consumer needs.
They will help us to conserve plant genetic resources and to improve them.
They help countries to share and exchange genetic resources with each other.
The publication was prepared under the guidance of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which in 2013 endorsed and urged the universal adoption of international standards for conservation in seed banks, field genebanks and for in vitro and cryopreservation of plant tissue.
The non-binding standards address a wide range of issues, including techniques for collecting samples; consistent labelling; protection from fungi, bacteria, pests and physical stress factors; viability and genetic integrity testing; and, developing strategies for the rapid multiplication of samples for distribution.
The world’s genebanks differ greatly in the size of their collections and the human and financial resources at their disposal.
The standards will help genebank managers strike a balance between scientific objectives, resources available, and the objective conditions under which they work.
FAO experts consulted with a wide range of partners, including those at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, a global partnership whose research is carried out at 15 centres worldwide, in particular Bioversity International; genebank managers; relevant academic and research institutions; and, national focal points for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.
The standards stress the importance of securing and sharing material along with related documentation in line with national and international regulations. They are an important tool in implementing the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, and the Second Global Plan of Action for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, both of which support countries in the conservation and sustainable use of crop diversity.
Such standards will be useful in our efforts to conserve, manage and use our diverse crop genetic resources.