The Importance of Seed Banks for Our Future – Agweb Powered by Farm Journal

Posted: February 17, 2021 at 1:54 am

Today, three major food crops--corn, rice, and wheat--provide more than 60 percent of the calories consumed by the more than seven billion people around the world on a daily basis, according to the UNs Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Just 15 crop plants provide 90 percent of the world's food energy intake, including some crops that many Americans have never heard of, such as teff, millet, plantains, and cassava, which are all staple crops in parts of Africa. Most agricultural research funding, especially in the private sector, focuses on the top six or so food crops, as those are the ones they see the opportunity to gain profits from selling farmers improved versions of those seeds. In order to conduct effective research on all domesticated crops, scientists need access to germplasm from a wide variety of cultivars with various characteristics, so as to be able to select the best of the traits they are seeking to introduce or enhance. A common source of that germplasm is seed banks, which are generally publicly funded and operated, to preserve a variety of seeds from both well-known and obscure plants.

Botanic gardens in Europe collected seeds from plants with medicinal properties as early as the 16th century. Some of them, such as the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew in southwest London, were established by grants from royal or noble families, while several were associated with European universities such as the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

One of the first known broad-based seed banks was established in Leningrad in what was then the Soviet Union in 1917 by botanist Nikolai Vavilov and his colleagues, who traveled around the world collecting a wide variety of seeds. The original institution, the Bureau of Plant Botany, was established under the Russian Empire in 1894, but their work originally focused largely on collecting seeds from within the country. Vavilov was sentenced to death in July 1941 by Russian dictator Josef Stalin, who had embraced the false theory of plant genetics promulgated by Vavilovs former student, Trofim Lysenko. Vavilovs sentence was commuted but he died in prison in 1943. His colleagues protected the seed collection during the 28-month long siege of Leningrad by the German army during World War II, even as nine of them died of starvation.

The first U.S. seed bank was established at a USDA facility in Ames, IA in 1947. That facility, still operated by the Agricultural Research Service, maintains a collection of more than 53,000 unique accessions of 1,400 distinct crop species. It is one of 20 gene banks in operation in this country, including a back-up collection at the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, CO.

Scientists began to raise concerns about the limited genetic diversity of major food crops about fifty years ago, after a major crop failure in the United States was determined to have resulted from the fact that most public corn breeders of the era used a single parental type of corn, known as Texas cytoplasmic male sterile (Tcms), to conduct their breeding practices. This variety had been favored by crop breeders because production of such corn seed did not require the labor of large numbers of young people to detasslefemale corn plants. In 1970, a disease that became known as Southern corn leaf blight (SCLB) caused by the fungus Bipolaris maydis that had been viewed previously as only a minor pathogen affecting corn grown in Southern states swept across the country into the Corn Belt region due to the presence of the wet, warm growing conditions in which the fungus thrived. Many cornfields in the South were totally wiped out, while Midwest corn farmers also experienced significant yield losses. It is estimated that the U.S. corn crop was reduced by at least 700 million bushels in that year, which amounted to about a 15 percent decline compared to the 1969 U.S. corn crop. Crop breeders began to respond immediately by using alternative germplasm as the foundation for corn seed sold to U.S. farmers in subsequent years.

There are more than 1,750 seed banks operated around the world, including several associated with member centers of the CGIAR system, such as the International Potato Center (CIF) in Peru and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), headquartered in Nigeria. Transfer of genetic materials held by these facilities is governed by provisions of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which entered into force in 2004 and now has 148 contracting parties. The United States joined the treaty in March of 2017. The treaty was established in order to ensure the establishment of a global system to provide farmers, plant breeders and scientists with access to plant genetic materials, and that recipients share benefits they derive from the use of these genetic materials with the countries where they have been originated.

The most famous seed bank is probably the Svalbard International Seed Vault, also known as the Doomsday Vault, which opened for storage in February 2008. The facility is constructed inside a mountain in Norway which is inside the Arctic Circle, intended as a backup collection in case other facilities are damaged or destroyed as a result of climate change or other catastrophes. The facility was built by the government of Norway and its operations are funded through donations to the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The vault holds varieties of more than 5,000 crop species. In 2020, the Cherokee Nation made a deposit of ancestral varieties of corn, beans, and squash seeds in the facility, to protect their cultural heritage.

One major component of biodiversity that gene banks are often lacking are crop wild relatives the undomesticated, but related, strains of staple food crops like corn and wheat. A recent study conducted by the Crop Trust looked at 1,076 wild relatives related to 81 species of some of the most important staple crops in the world. The researchers found that 70 percent of those wild relatives are insufficiently represented in the worlds gene banks.

As crop breeders search for varieties to help them incorporate drought or salt tolerance in crops to help with adaptation against the effects of climate change, all such samples will become even more important.

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The Importance of Seed Banks for Our Future - Agweb Powered by Farm Journal

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