A regional genebank for South East Asia

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries are going to set up a regional seed bank. Why?

…the proposed seed bank will particularly be useful in addressing seed shortages caused by natural calamities. The setting up of the seed bank … will ensure greater availability of quality seeds and spread of high yielding improved crop varieties, exchange of seeds and plant genetic resources and sharing of practices, technologies and techniques.

After the seed bank comes into existence, SAARC countries can share and grow common varieties of seeds. Currently, each country has its particular variety of seeds and some of them are not grown in other territories, while some are restricted by intellectual property rights.

A bit garbled to say the least, so I tried to go back to the source, and duly found the recommendations of the 16th SAARC summit in 2010. On page 6 a number of initiatives are listed under the heading of “Climate Change, Trade, Agriculture and Biodiversity.” These include the following:

SAARC Regional Food Bank and the need to supplement it with SAARC seed bank — SACEPS presented a comprehensive set of recommendations to the 15th SAARC Summit in Colombo, among others, on how to make the SRFB more effective since its early operationalization in view of climate change is crucial. In addition, it is also important for SAARC to consider the need to establish a SAARC seed bank in the region in order to negate the adverse effect of climate change. Community seed banks already exist in a number of countries in South Asia, but on their own they are not viable options to face the adverse effect of climate change. There is therefore a need to link these community seed banks at the national level and then link those national level seed banks at the regional level.

Eh? Most of these countries have national genebanks, some of them quite active. It is indeed important that these national genebanks collaborate with community seed banks and with each other, but this text seems to suggest there are no national level crop diversity conservation activities at all. It also ignores the fact that the international collections maintained by the CGIAR Centres are at the disposal of national breeding programmes striving to adapt crops to climate change. Maybe the proposed regional seed bank will focus on crops not covered by such international collections? Or on vegetatively propagated crops such as taro, banana and sweet potato which are particularly difficult to move around?

There’s also this in the recommendations:

Create a regional database of genetic resources and traditional knowledge — It is also important for SAARC to create a regional database of genetic resources and traditional knowledge and establish a regional access and benefit sharing regime with specific guidelines. The objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), of which every SAARC country is a member, is the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources. In South Asia, India and Bhutan already have national legislations in place, while Nepal has a draft in place and other countries have yet to develop such legal measures. There is need to bring the national legislations at par with the CBD and at the same time develop a regional framework for co-operation in bio-diversity conservation and to define areas of benefit sharing that arise out of the use of bio-diversity. Additionally, it is also important for South Asia to develop a common position for negotiation on the international regime at the CBD level on access and benefit sharing.

Again, many of these countries are Parties to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. One hopes someone has informed the relevant ministers since 2010.

4 Replies to “A regional genebank for South East Asia”

  1. I think there’s the increasingly common confusion between seed banks, which can store reasonably large quantities of seed needed by communities in the short term, from one sowing season to the next, essentially, and genebanks, which store less of each kind, for longer, and for different reasons.

    Following that logic, the SAARC story could be rewritten to make a little more sense. But I wouldn’t hold your breath for policy-makers to make the distinction.

    1. Indeed, my latest information is that “[t]he member states will develop common seed varieties of rice, wheat, maize,pulses and oilseeds. Each country will put aside 1% of the quality seed of the requirement, to the bank. There will be a Seed Bank Board to oversee the bank functions and other arrangements.” A regional seed bank, then, but not a genebank. It would be good to clarify the nomenclature, I suppose.

  2. As a seed bank (not a genebank): Is it a conduit for Monsanto to spread GM seed? Monsanto is already active in India. Now it is moving into Nepal (via USAID). And what about other SAARC countries? It does not have to be a planned strategy to have this effect in the end. But it is also quite plausible that Monsanto et al. “seeded” the idea of such a seedbank. Anyone have any information?

  3. Pingback: Mea culpa

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