Funding genebanks

This piece about a genebank being established in New Zealand to conserve threatened wild native plants (to go along with an existing facility for crops) got me thinking about funding arrangements for genebanks. The funds for the new venture in NZ are coming from MWH New Zealand, a consultancy company which says it provides “smart engineering, environmental, management and technology solutions.” That is admirable (I don’t see Halliburton supporting ex situ conservation any time soon), but how unusual is it exactly? The FAO’s State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources gives one sort of answer in Fig. 3.1 on page 84: 83% of the 6 million accessions conserved around the world are in national genebanks, 11% in the 12 CGIAR genebanks, and only 1.3% in private genebanks. Table 3.3 gives a total of over 1,300 genebanks worldwide. That makes the average size of a non-CGIAR collection about 3,000 accessions, which means there are maybe 20 or so private genebanks considered in the SOTWPGR statistics. But that probably means genebanks in the hands of the private sector, basically seed companies, not privately-funded national genebanks: over 75% of accessions in these private genebanks are advanced cultivars. I can’t find in the SOTWPGR a discussion of where the funds for national collections are coming from. Something like the Millennium Seed Bank in the UK receives a mixture of public and private support, for example, but I doubt the Gene Bank of Kenya, say, gets much private sector funding, though I could be wrong. About 11% of the 1,500 or so botanical gardens around the world are privately owned, and probably about half of these hold germplasm collections, giving maybe 70 or so privately owned botanic garden germplasm collections. Bottom line: examples of a private company – especially a private company which is not a seed company – supporting a national genebank are probably extremely rare around the world, and it will be interesting to see how the support MWH New Zealand is intending to provide will evolve in time. It is also worth noting that the Global Crop Diversity Trust, as a public-private partnership dedicated to the support of ex situ collection, will make drastic changes to this landscape.

Barcoding the Kruger Park

Botanists are collecting all the plants in the Kruger Park, according to this article. Fine, admirable: it’s good to have a full inventory of the flora of such an important protected area. We’ll know what crop wild relatives and medicinal plants grow there, for example, and thus perhaps be in a better position to tailor management interventions to suit them (at least in some parts of the park), and monitor changes. But actually that’s not why the specimens are being collected. Rather:

“We hope to be the team to identify the genetic bar-code for plants,” said team leader Dr Michelle van der Bank of the department of Botany and (Plant) Biotechnology.

That’s at the University of Johannesburg. I’m not sure I understand the logic, though. I doubt the Kruger is the most botanically diverse place in South Africa, or the most convenient (not to say safe) to collect in. What am I missing here? Anyway, it should make for some fun fieldwork.

Thanking the cranberry

Cultivating cranberries (Vaccinium spp) is pretty weird, involving as it does constructing beds by scraping off the topsoil and replacing it with sand, building dykes around them, and then flooding them at harvest time to collect the floating berries after threshing the vines. The crop is always in the news around this time of year because it is an important item on the menu of the Thanksgiving meal in the US, as a tangy accompaniment to roast turkey. Which is why the National Geographic website has posted this great video about the harvesting process.

The price of pineapples

A long story in the Guardian describes how pineapple growing is turning sour in Costa Rica. There’s an introduction about how Del Monte’s more tasty and nutritious “Gold” variety, bred by Hawaii’s Pineapple Research Institute in the 1970s, replaced Smooth Cayenne in the 1990s, but the real point of the article is to expose the dreadful conditions endured by workers on a Costa Rican plantation servicing a number of major British importers, mainly supermarkets. There are also serious environmental concerns over the recent expansion of the crop in the country.