More than pawns in the game of crop diversity conservation

by Luigi Guarino on November 21, 2012

There’s a program on the History Channel called Pawn Stars. It’s about a high-end but nevertheless slightly seedy family-owned pawn shop in Las Vegas, and the motley assortment of customers who come through its doors, hoping to trade their property for cash. I’ve developed something of an addiction to this show lately, and family and friends were sufficiently concerned to mount an intervention. Confronted with the truth, I had to think fast. I watch it for work reasons, I improvised. Pawn shops are just like genebanks.

Panicked or not, I may have been onto something. The wonderful thing about pawn shops is that they deal in all manner of weird and unusual stuff. Each item is brought in by someone who has some kind of story about it, needs to be evaluated by an expert, and will eventually catch the fancy of someone else. Just like genebanks. Genebanks typically keep seeds of dozens of different species, and sometimes hundreds if not thousands of different varieties of each. Each lot of seeds has a story – a story about how it got to be what it is, often thanks to generations of farmers –- encoded in its DNA. It was brought into the genebank by someone who more often than not has an interesting story to tell about how they got it. It needs to be taken care of in a particular way, depending on what it is, and its characteristics described. And it will be taken out by someone who needs it because of those characteristics, and will make good use of it, in a breeding programme, or because they remember their grandparents growing it.

Trying to explain what genebanks do can call forth many metaphors. All fall painfully short in some way. Banks only have money. Different currencies, maybe, and different kinds of accounts, but it’s all boring old money in the end. Only you have access to what you put into a safe deposit box.1 Customers don’t take things into department stores. Museums do have lots of different things in them, but visitors can’t take them out. No genebank manager wants their charge to be described as just a museum. Some people call genebanks morgues, and while that may occasionally be a bit true, it’s just plain rude.

The parallel for pawn shops is better than all these, I think. But it’s not perfect. The idea of pawning the crown jewels, another metaphor that’s sometimes used for genebanks, at least within the CGIAR, is not, ahem, attractive. Anyway, genebanks don’t buy and sell; though maybe they should sometimes. And they deal in resources that are pretty special in being non-exclusive and renewable. Just because you’ve used a particular variety doesn’t mean nobody else can. And if the genebank is careful, it can always make more seeds.

Which in the end is why none of the comparisons is really satisfactory. A genebank is a genebank is a genebank. There’s no substitute for walking into a cold store full of thousands of jars of different varieties of seeds, neatly arranged on floor-to-ceiling shelving, carefully labelled. Or listening to the people in charge of some of the largest genebanks in the world explain their visions, as I’m doing this week. But if you want to see why some people get a thrill when they do that, can’t be in Rome this week, and can’t wait for Genebank Gods to come along on the History Channel, watch Pawn Stars. Just don’t let your family catch you.

  1. Which incidentally makes this the perfect metaphor for one of the world’s genebanks. Can you guess which one? []

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