Virgil on orthodox seed storage

Whether it was really about growing crops, rearing livestock and keeping bees or not, Virgil’s Georgics has some wonderfully evocative – and didactic, of course – passages about agriculture. Here’s what lines 197-204 have to say about genebanks (at least in this translation):

I have observed that seeds stored away for a long time, however thoroughly they are looked after still deteriorate, unless the greatest possible human effort is used in selecting the best individually by hand each year. In the same way all things go to the bad, lose their power and slip backwards – it is nature’s law. It’s exactly like when a sculler is trying his utmost to propel his boat up a river with his oars. If he happens to relax his arms for a moment, the current sweeps him away headlong downstream.

World crop capitals?

The post a couple of days back about horseradish got me thinking about the whole “Capital of the World” thing. And of course it turns out Wikipedia has a long list of cities that call themselves the world capital of something or other. Here are the ones for crops (and one domesticated animal):

You’ll notice something of a disagreement over horseradish! Anyway, unsurprisingly perhaps, most of these places are in the US, and indeed California. So I was thinking: what would be the real Avocado Capital of the World, for example? I would vote for Antigua in Guatemala, where a couple of important varieties originated. The California Avocado Society (I think) put a plaque in the central plaza some years back commemorating the contribution of the area to the California avocado industry. The famous plant explorer Wilson Popenoe had a house there. Here’s a history of the avocado. And here’s an interesting account of avocado collecting in Guatemala. Any other ideas? What would naming a city a world capital for a crop do for the conservation of that crop?

Housing genebanks

Related to the question of how genebanks are funded is that of where they are located, physically and institutionally. I would imagine the overwhelming preponderance of genebanks around the world will come under a ministry of agriculture, university, botanic garden or seed company. But some are found in private homes, such as the French castle with its national tomato collection mentioned a few posts ago. A few NGOs around the world have genebanks, of course. There is a Yam Conservatory in New Caledonia which comes directly under the jurisdiction of the Traditional Senate of the island’s indigenous Kanak people. And then there are genebanks on farms.

Yes, what of community-based genebanks? These always give me trouble. They don’t seem to fit comfortably into our typology of conservation. Are they ex situ or in situ? Time to jettison that over-worked dichotomy, I think. But that discussion is for a future post.