My heart skipped a beat when I saw the title of a new paper in PLOS Biology: Gene Banks Pay Big Dividends to Agriculture, the Environment, and Human Welfare.1 At last, the numbers to persuade people that genebanks are worthwhile. It was not to be.
R.C. Johnson does a great job of setting out some of the history of genebanks, particularly the National Plant Germplasm System in the US, and gives some of the basics of how and why genebanks operate. He has some neat examples too.
Resistance to rhizomania, a disease of sugar beet, was dependent on a single gene. Breeders found new sources of resistance in samples collected in Turkey in 1952 and Denmark in 1985, and now those genes are enabling growers to stay one step ahead of the disease, which has broken through the original source of protection.
He talks about the protection of local and wild diversity too, in the context of wildfires in the American west. Downy (or drooping) brome (Bromus tectorum) is an invasive grass from Europe that has smothered local rangeland plants and contributes to more frequent and more severe wildfires. Seeds of native vegetation, kept in genebanks, are helping to restore damaged rangelands.
And for food security, Johnson talks about a joint effort between the NPGS and ICRISAT, to look for genes in wild chickpea that will confer resistance to pod-boring insects.
Heck, he even likes the idea of the Doomsday Seed Vault in Svalbard, using Ethiopian teff (Eragrostis tef), which was repatriated from the US after the Ethiopian genebank was ransacked during the civil war in the 1980s, as a good example of why safety duplicates are a good idea.
So what’s the problem? That there isn’t a solid economic justification for maintaining genebanks. Now as it happens, I don’t think one is needed. I’m persuaded. And I like the argument that Bonwit Koo, Philip Pardey and Brian Wright put forward in the conclusion of their book Saving Seeds: The Economics of Conserving Crop Genetic Resources Ex Situ in the Future Harvest Centres of the CGIAR. To paraphrase: although we cannot really calculate the benefits of conserving any particular accession, we do know that the benefits in general are really very large indeed, so why not go ahead and do the conservation anyway? Unfortunately, that argument has not really loosened the world’s purse strings all that much.
I don’t suppose one can really calculate the financial benefits of genebanks, and as I’ve said I don’t think one ought to have to, but I fear it will take another disaster before that message gets across; even then, memories are short.