Get real, IK academics told

A meeting of Nigerian academics interested in traditional knowledge was told to be a bit more humble in the face of the “uneducated” people in whom such knowledge resides. Many of the papers at the meeting seem to have been concerned with putting traditional knowledge to work, for example to reduce imports of pharmaceuticals by replacing them with traditional medicinal plants. One wonders, though, about the knowledge levels — traditional or otherwise — of the speaker who apparently said:

“conventional drugs are chemicals and therefore toxic. They are costly, but natural products are environmentally friendly. Unlike chemicals, natural products promote biodiversity and conservation.”

Seems to me that a little more depth of understanding is needed on all sides. Sure, traditional knowledge can be useful. But it needs to be tempered with a bit of rational investigation.

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.

Indian varieties

And speaking of intellectual property, Spicy IP reports that the Indian National Plant Variety Register has finally set up shop, more than five years after the legislation was first proposed. The Register is an essential prelude to protection for modern plant varieties, and although initially limited to 12 species, including three of the four biggies, there are plans to extend it further. The Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties (UPOV) has always staunchly maintained that registration systems in and of themselves do nothing to promote genetic erosion and the loss of agricultural biodiversity. That may be so where the government continues to permit the informal seed sector to flourish and where the companies who register most varieties do not push them aggressively even in unsuitable areas. I don’t know how India will fare, but I have my doubts, and I would certainly expect some losses of traditional and older varieties.

Expert witness

I think WWF came up with a really powerful idea with their “climate witnesses.” These are ordinary people around the world who WWF has asked to act as spokespeople, a kind of warning system for climate change, and advocates for action. One is an old Kikuyu cattle-keeper, who spoke up at the recent climate change conference in Nairobi about the changes he has been experiencing. Makes me wonder if we in the agrobiodiversity community could link up with WWF and use this existing network to highlight specifically how climate change is affecting crops and crop wild relatives. Or do we perhaps need “genetic erosion witnesses” of our own?