The World Vegetable Center has announced a grant of US$ 12 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to produce new varieties of vegetable adapted to Africa and to boost the production of vegetable seed in the region. The release points out that vegetables represent a good route to better health, through better nutrition, and better incomes. It says that “African vegetable production continues to rely on old or imported European varieties which are often unsuited to the disease and climatic stresses encountered in Africa. The project will deliver 150 new vegetable varieties in cooperation with African seed companies.” My questions:
- Will these new vegetable varieties be of the same old vegetables?
- Will any of the “Lost Vegetables of Africa” be involved?
- Will they be diverse enough to at least slow the evolution of pests and diseases?
- Will the poorest farmers be able to afford seeds from commercial companies?
It is an article of faith that intensive monocultures of genetically uniform plants are bad for biodiversity, wild and agricultural. So news that Malaysia is putting some money into a “Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund to promote ideas and proposals to enhance biodiversity linked to palm oil production worldwide” is welcome. The fund will seek to promote sustainable practices and to make more use of the production of palm oil plantations, in addition to boosting biodiversity in and around plantations. There’s also talk of using palm oil to produce biofuels, a hot topic at the CGIAR Annual General Meeting.
The Guardian in the UK reports on a new plan to tackle climate change and agriculture, to be launched today in Washington DC. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research will spend about UD 400 million a year “to help agricultural experts develop crops that can withstand heat and drought, find more efficient farming techniques and make better use of increasingly fragile soil and scarce water supplies,” according to the paper. Robert Ziegler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute, one of the CGIAR centres, did not specifically mention agrobiological diversity, but it is safe to say that the kinds of developments envisaged by the CGIAR will not be possible without making considerable use of existing biodiversity.
Later … there are CGIAR press releases here and here that give an official view.
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.
The International Sorghum and Millet Collaborative Research Support Program (INTSORMIL) based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln “works to improve nutrition and natural resource management and to increase income in developing countries, while developing new technologies to improve sorghum and pearl millet production and its use worldwide.” CropBiotech Update recently announced that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has given INTSORMIL a grant of US$9 M to continue enabling “plant breeders from U.S. land-grant universities to work with researchers in host countries through education, mentoring and collaborative research.” Sounds very worthy, but I must admit I hadn’t heard of this outfit before.