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Genebanks examined

My heart skipped a beat when I saw the title of a new paper in PLOS Biology: Gene Banks Pay Big Dividends to Agriculture, the Environment, and Human Welfare. At last, the numbers to persuade people that genebanks are worthwhile. It was not to be.

R.C. Johnson does a great job of setting out some of the history of genebanks, particularly the National Plant Germplasm System in the US, and gives some of the basics of how and why genebanks operate. He has some neat examples too.

Resistance to rhizomania, a disease of sugar beet, was dependent on a single gene. Breeders found new sources of resistance in samples collected in Turkey in 1952 and Denmark in 1985, and now those genes are enabling growers to stay one step ahead of the disease, which has broken through the original source of protection.

He talks about the protection of local and wild diversity too, in the context of wildfires in the American west. Downy (or drooping) brome (Bromus tectorum) is an invasive grass from Europe that has smothered local rangeland plants and contributes to more frequent and more severe wildfires. Seeds of native vegetation, kept in genebanks, are helping to restore damaged rangelands.

And for food security, Johnson talks about a joint effort between the NPGS and ICRISAT, to look for genes in wild chickpea that will confer resistance to pod-boring insects.

Heck, he even likes the idea of the Doomsday Seed Vault in Svalbard, using Ethiopian teff (Eragrostis tef), which was repatriated from the US after the Ethiopian genebank was ransacked during the civil war in the 1980s, as a good example of why safety duplicates are a good idea.

So what’s the problem? That there isn’t a solid economic justification for maintaining genebanks. Now as it happens, I don’t think one is needed. I’m persuaded. And I like the argument that Bonwit Koo, Philip Pardey and Brian Wright put forward in the conclusion of their book Saving Seeds: The Economics of Conserving Crop Genetic Resources Ex Situ in the Future Harvest Centres of the CGIAR. To paraphrase: although we cannot really calculate the benefits of conserving any particular accession, we do know that the benefits in general are really very large indeed, so why not go ahead and do the conservation anyway? Unfortunately, that argument has not really loosened the world’s purse strings all that much.

I don’t suppose one can really calculate the financial benefits of genebanks, and as I’ve said I don’t think one ought to have to, but I fear it will take another disaster before that message gets across; even then, memories are short.

Prince buys apples

Regular readers will remember last year’s flap over the UK’s National Fruit Collection, which is looked after by the Brogdale Horticultural Trust and managed by the University of Reading at Brogdale, Kent. I won’t rehearse the details again, but suffice to say there was some doubt about the collection’s future. There’s now news from the Daily Telegraph that the collection has been “saved” by the Prince of Wales:

…three separate collections of the 1,000 most important breeds have been sold to the Prince of Wales, the Co-operative supermarket group and an anonymous Scottish businessman. Each will plant their saplings in different parts of the country.

There’s not much more detail than that in the article, and of course we’ll work our contacts to try to find out more, and indeed to verify the accuracy of the newspaper accounts. But there are a couple of points about this statement that are a little worrying. At the very least, the whole thing raises a lot of interesting questions.

Let me start by saying that it’s certainly a good idea to safety duplicate (or triplicate in this case) germplasm collections in different places, especially field collections, which are particularly prone to accident and mishap. But how exactly were the thousand accessions chosen? There are 2,300 apple varieties in the collection. How does one measure the “importance” of each of these? One measure might be how much they’ve been used, either directly in plantations or in breeding. But wouldn’t such varieties be the ones in least need of conservation? It would be good to know what criteria were used to make the selection.

My second worry is over the fact that the germplasm has been “sold.” For how much, exactly? And how was the amount calculated? And what does that mean about access to that material by potential users, either in the UK or overseas? Apple is on Annex 1 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Ex situ conserved Annex 1 material in the public domain and under the control of a Party to the Treaty, which the UK government is, is supposed to be made available to users under a “facilitated” access and benefit sharing regime. Does this privatization of part of the collection affect its status under the Treaty? If so, has the Treaty Secretariat been informed? It’s not as if the new owners won’t be trying making money out of it:

The Co-op intends to produce a “heritage apple juice” from some of the breeds by the end of this year. William Barnett, who heads up The Co-operative Farms’ 800-acre fruit-growing operation at Tillington in Herefordshire, where the apple trees are being planted, said: “Some of the apples date back to pre-Victorian times. They were originally dessert apples, but became less fashionable and failed as modern commercial varieties.”

What if someone else wants to try the same thing? Under what conditions will they have access to the material?

As I say, lots of questions. If anyone out there has the answers, we’d love to hear from you.