Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust was interviewed by Suzanne Goldenberg for her recent—and contentious—article in The Guardian newspaper about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV). Ms Haga was also asked about the state of genebanks around the world, and the extent to which they are worthy of funding support from the Trust.
What she is quoted as saying both surprised (shocked even) and perplexed me: ‘What the Crop Trust proposed was a sort of triage on the major seed banks: selecting those worthy of support and winnowing out those not up to standard. In its early days, however, it is a process not unlike natural selection. Only one of 11 major gene banks operated under the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres met the Crop Trust’s standards and would be eligible for those funds: the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
The biggest surprise for everybody when we dived into the international gene banks was that they are not up to the standard that we had expected.’
While I’m proud that the International Rice Genebank at IRRI is held in high regard (‘a model for others to follow’ according to the 1995 External Review of CGIAR genebanks), and that it continues to meet most if not all of the genebank standards, it came as a big surprise to me that 10 other CGIAR genebanks are viewed in a different light. The 1995 review was conducted by a panel and involved 20 experts from national and regional genetic resources programs, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Its purpose was to assess the technical, scientific and financial constraints facing the Centre genebanks and to identify opportunities for improving their operations and the services they provide.
But if there were genebank deficiencies identified in the 1995 External Review, why had steps not been taken before now to sort these out? And that perplexes me. To be fair, I don’t know the details of the Crop Trust’s evaluation of each of the genebanks, and on what grounds they were ‘failed’. After all, I ‘retired’ from active genebank management in 2001, and no longer had regular contact with my colleagues in the CGIAR’s Inter-Centre Working Group on Genetic Resources.
The first genebank standards were published by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in 1985, and they were revised in 1994. I used the 1985 (and 1994 standards before they were published) when I joined IRRI and began a review of the International Rice Genebank operations. I first visited IRRI in January 1991 when I interviewed for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC), and was rather impressed with the genebank. On joining IRRI in July later that year I was concerned to discover that first impressions had been quite misleading. Over the next six months I uncovered a ‘genebank can of worms’, and had the genebank been reviewed then, it would have failed miserably.
We made an in-depth review of every aspect of genebank management, what would require increased investment (staff, funds, and equipment), and what could be improved significantly just by changing the way we did things in terms of seed management, germplasm regeneration, data management, and the like. Some of these didn’t actually require more resources, just a different approach that freed up existing staff time to concentrate on things that were important. I’m not going to elaborate. What I can say is that we enhanced operations right across the genebank operations, and I have described some of what we did in an earlier blog post.
A lot has been made of the publication of the latest Genebank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, by FAO in 2013 (revised in 2014), after endorsement by the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at its Fourteenth Session in 2013. The wheels of progress turn rather slowly at FAO. And I can’t remember how many years it has taken to come to agreement over the latest version.
The standards are non-binding, but they do provide guidance on best practice for a whole range of germplasm, and of course the norms that have to be followed today for germplasm exchange and use under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture using material transfer agreements.
Lack of progress?
What I cannot fathom is why the CGIAR genebanks did not apparently take a hard look at their operations before now and what is needed to bring them into line with accepted standards. As custodians of the world’s most important genetic resources collections I believe it was their obligation to do so. Or was it that center managements were waiting for someone else to step in and pick up the financial tab, rather than investing, as IRRI did, from its own resources? I wonder if many genebanks (not just those of the CGIAR) have held off making any changes or investment until the latest genebank standards had been ‘approved’ by the FAO Commission.
When I presented my upgrade plans to IRRI management way back in 1992 or so, we were fortunate that the institute was undergoing a thorough refurbishment of its physical plant. IRRI management was surprised however when I presented my ‘resources shopping list’ as no-one had expected that the genebank would need any attention. To everyone concerned, it was the ‘jewel in the institute’s crown’ that operated like clockwork. My genebank upgrade plan had to compete for resources with all the other things that needed improving around IRRI. Fortunately for the cause of rice genetic resources IRRI management approved what I has asked for (almost in its entirety) and we made the infrastructure improvements that went along with the changes to genebank operations.
I am pleased that my successor as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (now the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center), Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, has built on what I started. Many of the changes we made during the 1990s are still in place, but improved in a number of respects. For instance, all packets of seeds are now bar-coded, data management systems have been integrated with the rice breeding databases (something we started before I left GRC), more sub-zero cold storage capacity has been added, and even more screenhouse space for managing the wild rice species collection. The publication of the latest genebank standards provides another yardstick against which to measure the operations of the International Rice Genebank. I’m confident that there is and will continue to be a close congruence between the two.