Celebrating the ICARDA genebank

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More information on the ceremony for that award that the ICARDA genebank is to receive next month. It’s unclear to me from the invitation pamphlet to what extent the general public will be allowed in, but if you’re in Berlin on 19 March and would really like to go, my suggestion is to contact the Gregor Mendel Foundation and find out if they’ll let you register. You have until 4 March to do so. Looks like it’ll be quite a party.

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5 Replies to “Celebrating the ICARDA genebank”

  1. This award is covered in the Guardian (19th March). This links – wrongly – the seed deposit in Svalbard with the Syrian civil war. The deposit happened two years before the war. More credit to the ICARDA genebank crew if they hung on during the war. It would be interesting to know just where else the ICARDA samples have been duplicated. I had been arguing for donkey’s years of the need to the CGIAR to get its act together on duplication: I deposited the CIAT Phaseolus collection in EMBRAPA and CATIE in (about) 1988 and offered an entire set to the USDA (turned down as they would all have to be quarantined – but they had `black box’ IRRI and CIMMYT samples). I wonder what rigmarole is needed now to give away tens of thousands of samples.

    1. ICARDA has made multiple deposits in Svalbard, the preparation and timing of some very much linked to their desire to safety duplicate there due to the war (and earlier to the anticipation that trouble might be coming).

  2. Hi Cary – Thanks for the comment. The problem with linking the rescue of the ICARDA genebank samples to the civil war in Syria is the timeline. The earliest ICARDA would know of potential problems in Syria was December 2010 – the `Arab Spring’ in Tunisia, with Syria then following early 2011. Thanks to the really excellent Svalbard database, we – and any interested journalists – can easily track deposits. At least a year before the 2010 Arab Spring ICARDA had already deposited the bulk of its collection with 77,949 samples in Svalbard. If I assume planning for deposits had started at least two years before the ICARDA initial deposit in 8 February 2008 (when the Svalbard seed bank opened for business) this would place the start of the planned deposit around five full years before problems in Syria.
    Also, the level and timing of ICARDA seed deposits in Svalbard seem normal for other CGIAR institutes – for example, of the big boys, IRRI had already deposited Oryza 112,790 samples by the end of 2010 and CIMMYT 66,948 sample of Triticum and Zea (these would also be in `black box’ with the USDA). These and other Centres continued to deposit in Svalbard on a lower scale – as did ICARDA, as more samples were multiplied and processed. There was better luck with the replicate seed than with ICARDA’s breeding flock of sheep – not all of this was allowed out of Syria.
    Given these figures, I do not think the ICARDA deposit in Svalbard should be portrayed as a heroic rescue (thanks to the Government of Norway) of a vital global resource. In contrast it was sound (and I accept overdue) planning and professional efforts by the staff of underfunded (and unguided – see below) genebanks across the CGIAR to safeguard their collections.
    What is highly commendable is that the ICARDA genebank crew continued to curate the collections and continued send duplicates to Svalbard throughout the subsequent problems.
    A VVIP Ambassadorial visit to CIAT in the mid-1980s brought home to me that we were perceived to be in a war zone in Colombia. There were marksmen on the Genetic Resources Unit roof, armed guards with large calibre machine pistols, and continuous radio contact for the visit (I had to warn the radio operator that he would lose contact inside the cold stores and he should warn the marines not to overreact). I quickly duplicated the global common bean collection to both CATIE (an international institute in Costa Rica) and to EMBRAPA in Brazil (the largest national genebank in South America). Apart from the security value of this, each institute had the enhanced status of managing a global collection – a distinct political plus as you will recognise from Svalbard. In addition, CIAT made strong efforts to repatriate to the country of origin of samples – for example, many hundred bean samples back to Iran – another political plus.
    As a fact of history, the TAC Beltsville meeting of 1972 [PAB: IAR/72/11] recommended a co-ordinating committee (subsequently this became IBPGR) located within FAO, among many other things: “To arrange for the replicate storage of seed and vegetative stocks” (para. 33.9). A subsequent meeting in FAO in 1973 raised this task of replication to the third priority of a list of eleven for IBPGR (DDDR: IAR/73/31 doc. cg7311a-1.pdf). However, by the 1980s we were receiving no guidance from Rome and were left to our own ad hoc arrangements for `replication’. As to ICARDA, under the TAC recommendations (endorsed by FAO in 1973), all stored samples in ICARDA should have been replicated in the genebank for the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean located in Izmir (another one of the TAC/FAO recommendations for international collections that fell by the wayside).
    I applaud the brilliant designer touch for the Svalbard seed store: the midnight sun shining right down the long sloping entrance ramp on Norway’s National Day.

  3. I did not say that the first ICARDA shipment to Svalbard was related to Arab Spring. I said that ICARDA made multiple shipments and SOME were related to the troubles in the region.

    Timelines can’t tell you everything, David. When Arab Spring was yet young, I got on the phone with the DG of ICARDA to discuss the situation. I remember the conversation clearly. We agreed that such trouble was unlikely to come to Syria. (How wrong we were!) But, we also agreed that “just in case,” ICARDA would speed up its safety duplication work and get as many samples to Svalbard as quickly as possible. They did so. The Trust, which I headed at the time, assisted with funding and logistical help and we were in frequent communication with ICARDA as the situation deteriorated. This is how I know, as I stated above, that “the preparation and timing of some (deposits were) very much linked to their desire to safety duplicate there due to the war (and earlier to the anticipation that trouble might be coming).”

    Clearly, the actions of ICARDA and its gene bank staff have been laudatory, even heroic, and the recognition they have received is well deserved. We all applaud them. I am also happy, however, to have a duplicate copy of most of the ICARDA collection in Svalbard. Svalbard is considerably safer than Aleppo these days, and so are the seeds duplicated there. I think most would agree with that assessment.

  4. The ICARDA deposits in Svalbard were not particularly rapid – accepting that “as quickly as possible” is relative. By the end of 2010 ICARDA had made 3 deposits which were 81% of their eventual total. However, by the end of 2010 IRRI had made 2 deposits, which were 97% of their eventual total (presumably the `Ruaraidh’ factor at work).
    And if donors had held IBPGR (and FAO) to their specific mandate of more than 40 years ago to `replicate’ collections there would have been no need for Svalbard nor our discussion.

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