The cost-benefit of Australian genebanks

by Luigi Guarino on March 6, 2015

We’ve now received a copy of the 2007 report to the Steering Committee of Australia’s National Genetic Resource Centre entitled “Benefit-cost analysis of the proposed National Genetic Resources Centre,” as trailed in an earlier post. That’s the one that was said to posit a return on investment of 119:1 for the Australian pastures genebank. It makes for interesting reading, and we’ll try to summarize the main points here.

First, some clarifications, though. It in fact does not posit a return on investment (ROI) of 119:1 for the Australian pastures genebank. Sorry we gave that impression earlier. That is the ROI for the whole Australian National Genetic Resources Centre (NGRC), of which the pastures collection is just a part. Let me back up a bit. The Primary Industries Ministerial Council of Australia agreed in 2006 that the 5 existing, separate state-run genebanks (managing something like 180,000 accessions in total) should be amalgamated into a single (but actually two-node), national facility.

This was seen as an important pre-requisite for meeting Australia’s obligations under the International Treaty of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. As part of that process, The Allen Consulting Group was asked to consider the situation of no agricultural plant germplasm being conserved in Australia, work out how much the NGRC would be worth to Australia if that counterfactual were not in fact true, and compare that to the projected cost of setting up and running the NGRC.

The cost side of things was not that difficult to work out. It was estimated that the 2-node (crops and pastures) NGRC would cost about A$ 590,000 to set up, and A$ 3.5 million a year to run thereafter (compared to A$ 3.705 million a year for the 5-genebank system). Over 30 years, discounted at 6% real (whatever that means), that’s an outlay of A$ 51.7 million.

To get to the value of the system, it was necessary to make some assumptions:

  • Continued access to germplasm held in Australia would enable historic trends in the growth of farm productivity to continue.
  • Holding no germplasm in Australia would mean growth of productivity due to plant genetic enhancement would continue, but at a slower rate. Productivity gains due to other things would stay the same.
  • The share of productivity gains due to plant genetic enhancement varied from 5% (sheep farming) to 30% (field crops).
  • The share of productivity gains from plant genetic enhancement due to access to germplasm collections in Australia was 30%.

Put all that into your spreadsheet and you get a total of A$ 5 billion net present value to the productivity of Australian agriculture over the next 30 years. Add another A$ 1.2 billion in assorted benefits not associated with increased productivity (things like water quality, public health etc.), and you get A$ 6.2 billion (that’s an annuity benefit of A$ 364 million), which divided by the 30-year cost gives you that 119:1 ratio.

How confident are The Allen Consulting Group in their results? Well, they identified two key uncertainties: the annual discount rate and the share of genetic gain attributable to access to germplasm in Australia. Tweak the 6% and 30% values of these two things, respectively, and you get a range of productivity benefits over 30 years of A$ 1.2-14.7 billion around the canonical A$ 5 billion.

But when you think about it what the study actually did is work out the return to Australian agriculture of those 180,000 accessions being conserved, somewhere. The material could be held in places other than Australia, after all, and still be available under the International Treaty. Ah, but the study also figured that the cost of servicing demand by Australian breeders would be 20% higher if the average 14,000 yearly seed samples they requested had to come from genebanks outside the country, rather than the NGRC. So there were efficiency gains, which were factored into the benefits side of the equation.

So there you have it. Put another way, each accession maintained in the Australian systems will cost the Australian taxpayer A$ 21 a year over the next 30 years, and return A$ 194 a year to the Australian economy. I think: I get confused, but I think that’s right. That sounds pretty good, though I guess one should compare it with other sorts of investments the Australian government could make. Anyway, it seems the powers that be thought it was a bet worth making. And it’s not only Australians that should be grateful for that.


Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 4.14.25 PMA course on genetic resources for plant breeding is being organized at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Alnarp, Sweden. The person responsible is Prof. Rodomiro Ortíz, who has a huge amount of experience in the field, with a wide variety of crops. It’ll be in August, and the deadline for applications is April 30.


UC Davis Plant Breeding Symposium coming soon

by Luigi Guarino on March 4, 2015

uc davisThe 2015 UC Davis Plant Breeding Symposium will take place on April 10. The topic is “Challenges in Plant Breeding: Past, Present, and Future.” There’s an interesting lineup of invited speakers, and “[t]his year is the first time that students have the chance of presenting their research during the symposium.” We’ve been promised a summary post when it’s done. But that shouldn’t stop you going, if you can, or following the webinar.


Australia’s very valuable new pastures genebank

by Luigi Guarino on March 3, 2015

A video has just surfaced about the Australian Pastures Genebank, courtesy of the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), starring my mate Steve Hughes. Here are the headline numbers: 70K accessions, 2K species, collected over 60 years, ROI 119:1. Say what? Return on investment in a genebank of over 100 to 1? How come I’ve never come across this before? Well, it’s from a 2007 report to the Steering Committee of Australia’s National Genetic Resource Centre entitled “Benefit-cost analysis of the proposed National Genetic Resources Centre.” And I can’t find it online. But Steve has promised to send it. Stay tuned…


Confused? You will be!

2 March 2015

There is a nice set of presentations online on what it means in practical terms for a plant germplasm collection to be Nagoya and International Treaty compliant, in this particular case in the UK. I especially like the one by Penny Maplestone, Chief Executive of the British Society of Plant Breeders: If you’re still confused, […]

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Brainfood: Identifying accessions, Evaluating yeasts, Using CWR, Wild grapes, Bushmeat and nutrition, Rice evaluation, Tomato characterization, Sugarcane CWR, Nordic livestock, Conservation optimization, Moringa development, Albanian olives

2 March 2015

High-throughput genotyping for species identification and diversity assessment in germplasm collections.. 9% of random Brassicaceae samples from Australian Grains Genebank misidentified to species, with some interspecific hybrids. Methodology for enabling high-throughput simultaneous saccharification and fermentation screening of yeast using solid biomass as a substrate. Everything is now, now, now these days. Utilization of wild relatives […]

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KC on TV

1 March 2015

Dr KC Bansal, director of India’s national genebank at the National Bureau for Plant Genetic Resources was interviewed on the TV show Eureka recently. Well worth listening to his advocacy for agricultural R&D in general and genebanks in particular. He says he is particularly proud of NBPGR’s wheat characterization work. BTW, the lakh is a […]

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Apples in the snow

26 February 2015

You may have heard about the difficult weather hitting the northeast of the United States. That includes Geneva, in New York State, which is home to the US national apple and grape genebank. Well, thanks to Thomas Chao, who’s in charge of those collections, you can now have a see what a field collection of […]

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Kew does crops

25 February 2015

Nice to see crop wild relatives highlighted in several places in Kew’s new science strategy. Full disclosure: I work with the Millennium Seed Bank on CWR for my day job. But that was no guarantee that the subject would get such a high profile in the science strategy.

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Peachy photos online

24 February 2015

Not only is U.P. Hedrick’s magisterial The Peaches of New York on Open Library. The images are also on Flickr, under Internet Archive Book Images. Mouthwatering.

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