What have genebanks ever done for us?

Dr Helen Anne Curry, an historian at the University of Cambridge, has a piece out to trail her much anticipated book, Endangered Maize.

I haven’t read the book yet, but the article is a brisk, knowledgeable and engaging run-through the history of crop diversity conservation in genebanks, using maize as a case study. Her conclusion is stark.

I’m sceptical that seed banks – still conceived today as the central element in successful conservation of genetic diversity in crop plants – offer the long-term solution we need.

But is this fair? I don’t think anyone who is serious about the conservation of crop diversity really thinks genebanks are “the” solution, or indeed even “central” to the effort. We’ve been talking about complementarity between ex situ and in situ conservation for decades now. Genebanks are a piece of a complex puzzle: an important piece — and important in different ways and to different extents for different crops — but just a piece.

Dr Curry is similarly skeptical about genetic erosion:

…[o]ne especially disruptive piece of evidence was the discovery that, in some places, farmers didn’t change over to newly introduced “high yielding” crop varieties, even when they had an opportunity to do so. Or that when farmers did adopt new seed, they also kept continued growing the older types, too. As a result, varieties slated for inevitable extinction in the 1950s hadn’t disappeared.

But again, we’ve known for a while that the reality of genetic erosion is not as straightforward as the all-too-common “75%” narrative. Though admittedly it has taken us way too long to put that in writing.

In any case, it’s great to see the work of genebanks analyzed from a new perspective, or at least one that we’re not particularly used to. There’s always something to learn.

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