UK genebank still threatened

Perhaps because a general election in the United Kingdom is days away, the debate over the future of HRI Wellesbourne, which we noted here almost six months ago, is beginning to be heard above the din. 1 HRI (Horticulture Research International) is one of the last surviving bits of UK horticultural research. It also houses the Genetic Resources Unit, the UK’s primary vegetable genebank. Warwick University, which owns and operates HRI, has plans to merge it with a Life Sciences division, possibly using the land more profitably to build a housing estate.

Much of the discussion is about the loss of jobs, the loss of expertise, the loss of competitiveness and so on. These are hugely important topics, on which I don’t feel qualified to comment. Then there is the apparent duplicity and callousness of management at Warwick University, which does have a reputation for its strength in “business”. On balance, though, it does seem to be just a bit short-sighted for governments to promote food security, exhort people to eat more nutritious food, and then stand by while one of the few places still able to deliver both is closed.

Personally, I’m not optimistic. Warwick prices everything, values nothing, and acts accordingly. But more idealistic people than me are beginning to stir.

Charlie Clutterbuck, who among his many other talents runs a successful website on sustainable food, has devoted several pages there to information about Wellesbourne, including links to a Petition and a Google Group, that is a huge repository of information.

It would be premature to judge either the election or what the winners will do about HRI. Horticulture Week, a trade paper, asked the key political contenders whether they would intervene to prevent the loss, and if so how. None of the replies is particularly edifying, but that’s hardly surprising.2 Governments of all stripes talk about the need for research to enhance food security, and some of HRI’s science may yet find a new home. However it currently looks as if the foundations of breeding, the genebank and the agricultural biodiversity it contains, are being allowed to decay. Maybe Luigi’s right.

Let it close, I say. Just transfer the contents to some place where its long term conservation and availability is guaranteed, then let it close.

All the politicos would have to do then would be to support long-term conservation somewhere else and take advantage of shared access to enjoy the benefits of someone else’s efforts.

  1. And thanks to Colin Tudge for making it audible to me. []
  2. It’s the second question on the page. []

8 Replies to “UK genebank still threatened”

  1. I couldn’t disagree more with Luigi’s comment. No, don’t let it close. By all means!!! We’re not talking only about seeds and their intrinsic value, we’re talking about that and a lot more. As it’s pointed out above, we’re talking about “the loss of jobs, the loss of expertise, the loss of competitiveness and so on”. A genebank is a lot more than a seed store and some people should know better!!!
    While some people may have short memory, I don’t.
    Mr. Gordon Brown, then Minister of Economy, declared that: “Environmental sustainability is not an option, it is a requirement” (Universal. Iberia. Viernes, 21 de Abril 2006).
    He should be confronted with his own words!!!

  2. Why persevere with a place that has clearly no interest in maintaining the collection in the long term? Close it. Move the people, seeds, equipment somewhere else where they will be appreciated, and supported.

  3. That’s exactly where the problem lies. They clearly have no interest in maintaining neither the seeds nor the people because it doesn’t generate immediate and high profits. Genetic resources cannot be subject to the law of the market. They’re essential for the future of mankind. That’s why it is our duty to denounce these cases and push for a responsible behaviour. That’s why politicians should be confronted with their own words. See the example I gave above.

    1. Somehow you have to make the link between genebanks and sustainability, and that is the bit that eludes politicians. We have not convinced them, clearly. I wonder what would happen if researchers topped trying to fight, say, UG99. Just shut that effort down. See what happens.

  4. Genebanks should be subjected to some laws of the market. What happens, for example, if Genebank A can ensure long-term availability to agreed standards for a lower cost than Genebank B? Throw in that Genebank B isn’t able or willing to provide long-term guarantees for the maintenance of the material. Would it not make sense for the collection (and associated data — and expertise, why not?) in Genebank B to be transferred to Genebank A?

  5. I don’t want to prolong this discussion too much but want to add that I might not have explained well what I meant by law of the market. Not referring to the genebanks willingness or capabilities to maintain germplasm collections but rather to the case of public institutions that change to private hands and then are hacked to make them not only profitable but immensely profitable. In those cases germplasm collections and associated data and expertise are normally the first to suffer.

  6. What is Warwick University actually proposing?
    Is the Genetic Resources Unit to be rehoused under the Department of Life Sciences in a new state of the art facility to increase storage capacity to meet the increasing demand to ex situ conserve plant genetic resources (crops, landraces, wild crop relatives) or are seeds and germplasm to be dumped in the department’s basement with little care for its socio-economic and money making value with the addition to jobs being axed in a research area, which struggles to find adequate funding? If it is to be the latter, Warwick are being incredibly short sighted.
    I will write to the new PM to protest if HRI is to be disbanded.

  7. Excellent. Do that. The more pressure is put on them, the better. Too bad that Mr. G. Brown is no longer there to be confronted with is own, beautiful words. However, that example can always be used to show how hypocritical they’re.

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