There’s more to genetic resources than Svalbard

Way above the Arctic Circle (in fact at 78°N) there is a very large and cold hole in the ground. Mostly it is dark. Few people visit it on a daily basis.

A germplasm backup for the world
Nevertheless it’s a very important hole in the ground. It is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where more than 70 genebanks have placed — for long-term security, and under so-called blackbox storage [1] — a duplicate sample of seeds from their genetic resources (or germplasm) collections of plant species important for agriculture. Many of the most important and genetically diverse germplasm collections are backed up in Svalbard. But there are hundreds more collections, including some very important national collections, still not represented there.

A beacon of light – and hope – shining out over the Arctic landscape. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

Since it opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault has hardly ever been out of the media; here is a recent story from Spain’s El Pais, for example. If the public knows anything at all about genetic resources and conservation of biodiversity, they have probably heard about that in relation to Svalbard (and to a lesser extent, perhaps, Kew Gardens’ Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex).

The Svalbard Vault is a key and vital component of a worldwide network of genebanks and genetic resources collections. It provides a long-term safety backup for germplasm that is, without doubt, the genetic foundation for food security; I have blogged about this before. At Svalbard, the seeds are ‘sleeping’ deep underground, waiting to be wakened when the time comes to resurrect a germplasm collection that is under threat. Waiting for the call that hopefully never comes.

Svalbard comes to the rescue
But that call did come in 2015 for the first and only time since the vault opened. Among the first depositors in Svalbard in 2008 were the international genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium, including the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). The ICARDA genebank conserves important cereal and legume collections from from the Fertile Crescent (the so-called ‘Cradle of Agriculture’) in the Middle East, and from the Mediterranean region. Until the civil war forced them out of Syria, ICARDA’s headquarters were based in Aleppo. Now it has reestablished its genebank operations in Morocco and Lebanon. In order to re-build its active germplasm collections, ICARDA retrieved over 15,000 samples from Svalbard in 2015, the only time that this has happened since the vault was opened. Now, thanks to successful regeneration of those seeds in Morocco and Lebanon, samples are now being returned to Svalbard to continue their long sleep underground.

ICARDA genebank staff ready to send precious seeds off to the Arctic. Dr Ahmed Amri, the ICARDA Head of Genetic Resources, is third from the right. Photo courtesy of ICARDA.

Another point that is often not fully understood, is that Svalbard is designated as a ‘secondary’ safety backup site. Genebanks sending material to Svalbard are expected to have in place a primary backup site and agreement. In the case of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), which I am most familiar with for obvious reasons, duplicate germplasm samples of almost the entire collection of 127,000 accessions, are stored under blackbox conditions in the -18°C vaults of The National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. Although ICARDA had safety backup arrangements in place for its collections, these involved several institutes. To reestablish its active collections in 2015 it was simpler and more cost effective to retrieve the samples from just one site: Svalbard.

We see frequent reports in the media about seeds being shipped to Svalbard.  Just last week, the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, Scotland, announced that it was sending seeds of potatoes from the Commonwealth Potato Collection to Svalbard; it was even reported on the BBC. A few days ago, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico sent a ton of seeds to the vault. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), in Cali, Colombia sent its latest shipment of beans and tropical forages last October.


Dr Åsmund Asdal, Coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, from the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), receives a shipment of germplasm from CIAT in October 2016. Photo courtesy of the Crop Trust.

The germplasm iceberg
Key and vital as Svalbard is, it is just the tip of the germplasm iceberg. The Svalbard vault is just like the part of an iceberg that you see. There’s a lot more going on in the genetic resources world that the public never, or hardly ever, sees.

There are, for example, other types of genetic resources that will never be stored at Svalbard. Why? Some plant species cannot be easily stored as seeds because they either reproduce vegetatively (and are even sterile or have low fertility at the very least; think of bananas, potatoes, yams or cassava); or have so-called recalcitrant seeds that are short-lived or cannot be stored at low temperature and moisture content like the seeds of many cereals and other food crop species (the very species stored at Svalbard). Many fruit tree species have recalcitrant seeds.

Apart from the ICARDA story, which was, for obvious reasons, headline news, we rarely see or hear in the media the incredible stories behind those seeds: where they were collected, who is working hard to keep them alive and studying the effects of storage conditions on seed longevity, and how plant breeders have crossed them with existing varieties to make them more resistant to diseases or better able to tolerate environmental change, such as higher temperatures, drought or flooding. Last year I visited a potato and sweet potato genebank in Peru, a bean and cassava genebank in Colombia, and one for wheat and maize in Mexico; then in Kenya and Ethiopia, I saw how fruit trees and forage species are being conserved.

Here is what happens at IRRI. You can’t do these things at Svalbard!

These are the day-to-day (and quite expensive) operations that genebanks manage to keep germplasm alive: as seeds, as in vitro cultures, or as field collections.

But what is the value of genebank collections? Check out a PowerPoint presentation I gave at a meeting last June. One can argue that all germplasm has an inherent value. We value it for its very existence (just like we would whales or tigers). Germplasm diversity is a thing of beauty.

Most landraces or wild species in a genebank have an option value, a potential to provide a benefit at some time in the future. They might be the source of a key trait to improve the productivity of a crop species. Very little germplasm achieves actual value, when it used in plant breeding and thereby bringing about a significant increase in productivity and economic income.

There are some spectacular examples, however, and if only a small proportion of the economic benefits of improved varieties was allocated for long-term conservation, the funding challenge for genebanks would be met. Human welfare and nutrition are also enhanced through access to better crop varieties.

impact-paper_small_page_01Last year, in preparation for a major fund-raising initiative for its Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, the Crop Trust prepared an excellent publication that describes the importance of genebanks and their collections, why they are needed, and how they have contributed to agricultural productivity. The economic benefits from using crop wild relatives are listed in Table 2 on page 8. Just click on the cover image (right) to open a copy of the paper. A list of wild rice species with useful agronomic traits is provided in Table 3 on page 9.

Linking genebanks and plant breeding
Let me give you, once again, a couple of rice examples that illustrate the work of genebanks and the close links with plant breeding, based on careful study of genebank accessions.

The indica variety IR72 was bred at IRRI, and released in 1990. It became the world’s highest yielding rice variety. One of its ancestors, IR36 was, at one time, grown on more than 11 million hectares. IR72 has 22 landrace varieties and a single wild rice, Oryza nivara, in its pedigree. It gets its short stature ultimately from IR8, the first of the so-called ‘miracle rices’ that was released in 1966. IRRI celebrated the 50th anniversary of that release recently. Resistance to a devastating disease, grassy stunt virus, was identified in just one accession of O. nivara from India. That resistance undoubtedly contributed to the widespread adoption of both IR36 and IR72. Just click on the pedigree diagram below to open a larger image [2].

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The pedigree of rice variety IR72, that includes 22 landrace varieties and one wild species, Oryza nivara. Courtesy of IRRI.

A more recent example has been the search for genes to protect rice varieties against flooding [3]. Now that might seem counter-intuitive given that rice in the main grows in flooded fields. But if rice is completely submerged for any length of time, it will, like any other plant, succumb to submergence and die. Or if it does recover, the rice crop will be severely retarded and yield very poorly.

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene after a period of inundation

Rice varieties with and without the SUB1 gene following transient complete submergence. Photo courtesy of IRRI.

Seasonal flooding is a serious issue for farmers in Bangladesh and eastern India. So the search was on for genes that would confer tolerance of transient complete submergence. And it took 18 years or more from the discovery of the SUB1 gene to the release of varieties that are now widely grown in farmers’ fields, and bringing productivity backed to farming communities that always faced seasonal uncertainty. These are just two examples of the many that have been studied and reported on in the scientific press.

There are many more examples from other genebanks of the CGIAR Consortium that maintain that special link between conservation and use. But also from other collections around the world where scientists are studying and using germplasm samples, often using the latest molecular genetics approaches [4] for the benefit of humanity. I’ve just chosen to highlight stories from rice, the crop I’m most familiar with.

[1] Blackbox storage is described thus on the Crop Trust website ( “The depositors who will deposit material will do so consistently with relevant national and international law. The Seed Vault will only agree to receive seeds that are shared under the Multilateral System or under Article 15 of the International Treaty or seeds that have originated in the country of the depositor.

Each country or institution will still own and control access to the seeds they have deposited. The Black Box System entails that the depositor is the only one that can withdraw the seeds and open the boxes.” 

[2] Zeigler, RS (2014). Food security, climate change and genetic resources. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 1-15.

[3] Ismail, AM & Mackill, DJ (2014). Response to flooding: submergence tolerance in rice. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 251-269.

[4] McNally, KL (2014). Exploring ‘omics’ of genetic resources to mitigate the effects of climate change. In: M Jackson, B Ford-Lloyd & M Parry (eds). Plant Genetic Resources and Climate Change. CABI, Wallingford, Oxfordshire. pp. 166-189.

If it’s Wednesday, it must be Colombia . . .

Not quite the ‘Road to Rio . . .’
I have just returned from one of the most hectic work trips I have taken in a very long time. I had meetings in three countries: Peru, Colombia, and Mexico in just over 6½ days.

And then, of course, there were four days of travel, from Birmingham to Lima (via Amsterdam), Lima to Cali (Colombia), then on to Mexico City, and back home (again via Amsterdam). That’s some going. Fortunately the two long-haul flights (BHX-AMS-LIM and MEX-AMS-BHX) were in business class on KLM. Even so the journeys from Lima to Cali (direct, on Avianca) and Cali to Mexico (via Panama City, on COPA) were 12 hours and 11 hours door-to-door, respectively, the former taking so long because we were delayed by more than 5 hours.

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, I am leading the evaluation of the program to oversee the genebank collections in eleven of the CGIAR centers (known as the Genebanks CRP). Together with my team colleague, Marisé Borja, we met with the genebank managers at the International Potato Center (CIP, in Lima), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, in Cali), and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT, in Texcoco near Mexico City).

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A drop of cognac.

It all started on Sunday 24 July, when I headed off to Birmingham Airport at 04:30 for a 6 o’clock flight to Amsterdam. Not really having slept well the night before, I can’t say I was in the best shape for flying half way round the world. I had a four hour stopover in Amsterdam, and managed to make myself more or less comfortable in the KLM lounge before boarding my Boeing 777-300 Lima flight sometime after noon. There’s not a lot to do on a long flight across the Atlantic except eat, drink and (try to) sleep. I mainly did the first two.

It never ceases to impress me just how vast South America is. Once we crossed the coast of Venezuela and headed south over the east of Colombia and northern Peru we must have flown for about three hours over rain forest as far as you could see. I wish I’d taken a few pictures of the interesting topography of abandoned river beds and oxbow lakes showing through all that dense vegetation. At one point we flew over a huge river, and there, on its banks, was a city, with an airport to the west. I checked later on Google Maps, and I reckon it must have been Iquitos in northern Peru on the banks of the Amazon. Over 2000 miles from the Atlantic, ocean going ships can sail all the way to Iquitos. I once visited Iquitos in about 1988 in search of cocoa trees, and we crossed the Amazon (about two miles wide at this point) in a small motorboat.

Then the majestic Andes came into view, and after crossing these we began our long descent into Lima, with impressive views of the mountains all the way and, nearer Lima, the coastal fogs that creep in off the Pacific Ocean and cling to the foothills of the Andes.

We landed on schedule at Jorge Chavez International Airport in Lima around 18:00 (midnight UK time) so I had been travelling almost 20 hours since leaving home. I was quickly through Immigration and Customs, using the Preferencial (Priority) line reserved for folks needing special assistance. My walking stick certainly gives me the edge these days on airlines these days.

Unfortunately, the taxi that had been arranged to take me to my hotel, El Condado, in the Lima district of Miraflores (where Steph and I lived in the 1970s) was a no-show. But I quickly hired another through one of the official taxi agencies inside the airport (necessary because of the various scams perpetrated by the cowboy taxi drivers outside the terminal) at half the price of the pre-arranged taxi.

After a quick shower, I met up with old friends and former colleagues at CIP, Dr Roger Rowe and his wife Norma. I first joined CIP in January 1973, and Roger joined in July that same year as CIP’s first head of Breeding & Genetics. He was my first boss!

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They were in the bar, and we enjoyed several hours of reminiscences, and a couple of pisco sours (my first in almost two decades), and a ‘lite bite’ in the restaurant. It must have been almost 11 pm before I settled into bed. That was Sunday done and dusted. The work began the following morning.

All things potatoes . . . and more
I haven’t been to CIP since the 1990s. Given the tight schedule of meetings arranged for us, I didn’t get to see much more than the genebank and dining room.

CIP has a genebank collection of wild and cultivated potatoes (>4700 samples or accessions, most from the Andes of Peru), wild and cultivated sweet potatoes (>6400, Ipomoea spp.), and Andean roots and tubers (>1450) such as ulluco (Ullucus tuberosus), mashua (Tropaeolum tuberosum), and oca (Oxalis tuberosa).

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Native potato varieties.

Although potatoes are grown annually at the CIP experiment station at Huancayo, some six or more hours by road east of Lima, at over 10,000 feet in the Mantaro Valley, and sweet potatoes multiplied in greenhouses at CIP’s coastal headquarters at La Molina, the collections are maintained as in vitro cultures and, for potatoes at least, in cryopreservation at the temperature of liquid nitrogen. The in vitro collections are safety duplicated at other sites in Peru, with Embrapa in Brazil, and botanical seeds are safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

With a disease pressure from the many diseases that affect potato in its center of origin—fungal, bacterial, and particularly viruses—germplasm may only be sent out of the country if it has been declared free of these diseases. That requires growth in aseptic culture and treatments to eradicate viruses. It’s quite an operation. And the distribution does not even take into account all the hoops that everyone has to jump through to comply with local and international regulations for the exchange of germplasm.

The in vitro culture facilities at CIP are rather impressive. When I worked at CIP more than 40 years ago, in vitro culture was really in its infancy. Today, its application is almost industrial in scale.

Our host at CIP was Dr David Ellis, genebank manager, but we also met with several of the collection curators and managers.

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L to R: Ivan Manrique (Andean roots and tubers), Alberto Salas (consultant, wild potatoes), Marisé Borja (evaluation team), me, René Gómez (Senior Curator), David Ellis.

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Alberto Salas, now in his 70s, worked as assistant to Peruvian potato expert Prof. Carlos Ochoa. Alberto’s wealth of knowledge about wild potatoes is enormous. I’ve known Alberto since 1973, and he is one of the most humble and kind persons I have ever met.

Prior to our tour of the genebank, René Gómez and Fanny Vargas of the herbarium had found some specimens that I had made during my studies in Lima during 1973 and 1974. I was also able to confirm how the six digit germplasm numbering system with the prefix ’70’ had been introduced and related to earlier designations.

It was great to see how the support from the Genebanks CRP has brought about so many changes at CIP.

Lima has changed so much over the past couple of decades. It has spread horizontally and upwards. So many cars! In the district of Miraflores where we used to live, the whole area has been refurbished and become even smarter. So many boutiques and boutique restaurants. My only culinary regret is that the famous restaurant La Rosa Nautica, on a pier over the Pacific Ocean closed down about two months ago. It served great seafood and the most amazing pisco sours.

All too soon our two days in Lima were over. Next stop: Cali, Colombia.

Heading to the Cauca Valley . . . 
Our Avianca flight to Cali (an Embraer 190, operated by TACA Peru) left on time at 10:25. Once we’d reached our cruising altitude, the captain turned off the seat belt sign, and I headed to the toilet at the front of the aircraft, having been turned away from the one at the rear. Strange, I thought. I wasn’t allowed to use the one at the front either. It seems that both refused to flush. The captain decided to return to Lima, but as we still almost a full load of fuel, he had to burn of the excess so we could land safely. So, at cruising altitude and as we descended, he lowered the undercarriage and flaps to create drag which meant he had to apply more power to the engines to keep us flying, thereby burning more fuel. Down and down we went, circling all the time, for over an hour! We could have made it to Cali in the time it took us to return to Lima. We could have all sat there with legs crossed, I guess.

Once back on the ground, engineers assessed the situation and determined they could fix the sensor fault in about a couple of hours. We were taken back to the terminal for lunch, and around 15:30 we took off again, without further incident.

But as we waited at the departure gate for a bus to the aircraft, there was some impromptu entertainment by a group of musicians.

Unfortunately because of our late arrival in Cali, we missed an important meeting with the CIAT DG, who was not available the following days we were there.

CIAT was established in 1967, and is preparing for its 5oth anniversary next year.

Daniel Debouck, from Belgium, is CIAT’s genebank manager, and he has been there for more than 20 years. He steps down from this position at the end of the year, and will be replaced by Peter Wenzl who was at the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Bonn until the end of April this year. Daniel is an internationally-recognised expert on Phaseolus beans.

The CIAT genebank has three significant collections: wild and cultivated Phaseolus beans (almost 38,000 accessions), wild and cultivated cassava (Manihot spp., >6600 accessions in vitro or as ‘bonsai’ plants), and more than 23,000 accessions of tropical forages. Here’s an interesting fact: one line of the forage grass Brachiaria is grown on more than 100 million hectares in Brazil alone!

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Me and Daniel Debouck.

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Bean varieties.

The bean collections are easily maintained as seeds in cold storage, as can most of the forages. But, like potato, the cassava accessions present many of the same quarantine issues, have to be cleaned of diseases, particularly viruses, and maintained in tissue culture. Cryopreservation is not yet an option for cassava, and even in vitro storage needs more research to optimise it for many clones.

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QMS manuals in the germplasm health laboratory.

Like many of the genebanks, CIAT has been upgrading its conservation processes and procedures through the application of a Quality Management System (QMS). A couple of genebanks (including CIP) have opted for ISO certification, but I am of the opinion that this is not really suitable for most genebanks. Everything is documented, however,  including detailed risk assessments, and we saw that the staff at CIAT were highly motivated to perform to the highest standards. In all the work areas, laboratory manuals are always to hand for easy reference.

An exciting development at CIAT is the planned USD18-20 million biodiversity center, with state of the art conservation and germplasm health facilities, construction of which is expected to begin next year. It is so designed to permit the expected thousands of visitors to have good views of what goes on in a genebank without actually having to enter any of the work areas.

On our first night in Cali, our hosts graciously wined and dined us at Platillos Voladores, regarded as one of Cali’s finest restaurants.


We had the private room for six persons with all the wine bottles on the wall, which can be seen in this photo above.

Arriba, arriba! Andale!
On Saturday afternoon around 15:30, we headed to Mexico City via Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. Cali’s international airport is being expanded significantly and there are now international flights to Europe as well as the USA. This must be great for CIAT staff, as the airport is only 15 minutes or so from the research center.

After takeoff, we climbed out of the Cauca Valley and had great views of productive agriculture, lots of sugar cane.


Tocumen is lot busier than when I was travelling through therein the late 1970s. With several wide-bodied jets getting set to depart to Europe, the terminal was heaving with passengers and there was hardly anywhere to sit down. On our COPA 737-800 flight to Mexico I had chosen aisle seat 5D immediately behind the business class section, so had plenty of room to stretch my legs. Much more comfortable than had I stayed with the seat I was originally assigned. I eventually arrived to CIMMYT a little after midnight.

CIMMYT is the second oldest of the international agricultural centers of the CGIAR, founded in 1966. And it is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary in about 1 month from now. IRRI, where I worked for 19 years, was the first center.

Unlike many of the CGIAR centers that have multi-crop collections in their genebanks (ICARDA, ICRISAT, and IITA for example), CIMMYT has two independent genebank collections for maize and wheat in a single facility, inaugurated in 1996, and dedicated to two renowned maize and wheat scientists, Edwin Wellhausen and Glenn Anderson. But CIMMYT’s most famous staff member is Nobel Peace prize Laureate, Norman Borlaug, ‘Father of the Green Revolution’.

Tom Payne and Denise Costich are the wheat and maize genebank managers. CIMMYT’s genebank has ISO 9001:2008 accreditation.

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Ayla Sençer

Tom has been at CIMMYT in various wheat breeding capacities for more than 25 years. In addition to managing the wheat genebank, Tom manages the wheat international nurseries. One of the first curators of the wheat collection was Ayla Sençer from Turkey, and a classmate of mine when we studied at Birmingham in 1970 for the MSc in Conservation and Utilisation of Plant Genetic Resources. The CIMMYT wheat collection is unlike many other germplasm collections in that most of the 152,800 samples are actually breeding lines (in addition to landrace varieties and wild species).

Denise joined CIMMYT just a year or so ago, from the USDA. She has some very interesting work on in situ conservation and management of traditional maize varieties in Mexico and Guatemala. A particular conservation challenge for the maize genebank is the regeneration of highland maizes from South America that are not well-adapted to growing conditions in Mexico. The maize collection comprises over 28,000 accessions including a field collection of Tripsacum (a wild relative of maize).

In recent years has received major infrastructure investments from both the Carlos Slim Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. New laboratories, greenhouses and the like ensure that CIMMYT is well-placed to deliver on its mission. And the support received through the Genebanks CRP has certainly raised the morale of genebank staff.

On our last day at CIMMYT (Wednesday), we met with Janny van Beem from the Crop Trust. Janny is a QMS expert, based in Houston, Texas, and she flew over to Mexico especially to meet with Marisé and me. When we visiited Bonn in April we only had opportunity to speak by Skype with Janny for jsut 30 minutes. Since the implementation of QMS in the genebanks seems to be one of the main challenges—and success stories—of the Genebanks CRP, we thought it useful to have an in-depth discussion with Janny about this. And very useful it was, indeed!

On the previous evening (Tuesday) Tom, Denise, Marisé, Janny and I went out for dinner in Texcoco, to a well-known tacqueria, then into the coffee shop next door afterwards. No margaritas that night – we’d sampled those on Monday.

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L to R: Janny, me, Tom, Marisé, and Denise.

But on this trip we did have one free day, Sunday. And I met up with members of CIMMYT’s Filipino community, many of them ex-IRRI employees, some of who worked in units for which I had management responsibility. They organised a ‘boodle fight‘ lunch, and great fun was had by one and all.

Hasta la vista . . .
At 6 pm on Wednesday I headed into Mexico City to take the KLM flight to Amsterdam. It was a 747-400 Combi (half passengers, half cargo). I haven’t flown a 747 for many years, and I’d forgotten what a pleasant experience it can be. It’s remarkable that the 747 is being phased out by most airlines; they are just not as economical as the new generation twin engine 777s, 787s, and A350s.

With the new seating configuration, I had a single seat, 4E, in the center of the main deck forward cabin. Very convenient. I was glad to have the opportunity of putting my leg up for a few hours. Over the previous 10 days my leg had swelled up quite badly by the end of each day, and it was quite painful. The purser asked if I had arranged any ground transport at Schipol to take me from the arrival to departure gates. I hadn’t, so she arranged that for me before we landed. The distances at Schipol between gates can be quite challenging, so I was grateful for a ride on one of the electric carts.


But after we went through security, my ‘assistant’ pushed me to my gate in a wheelchair. I must admit I felt a bit of a fraud. An electric cart is one thing, and most welcome. But a wheelchair? Another was waiting for me on arrival at Birmingham. Go with the flow!


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I was all alone in Business Class from Schipol to Birmingham. We were back at BHX on time, and I was out in the car park looking for my taxi home within about 20 minutes, and home at 6 pm.

Now the hard work really begins—synthesising all the discussions we had with so many staff at CIP, CIAT, and CIMMYT. For obvious reasons I can’t comment about those discussions, but visiting these important genebanks in such a short period was both a challenging but scientifically enriching experience.





Plant Genetic Resources: Our challenges, our food, our future


Jade Phillips

That was the title of a one day meeting on plant genetic resources organized by doctoral students, led by Jade Phillips, in the School of Biosciences at The University of Birmingham last Thursday, 2 June. And I was honoured to be invited to present a short talk at the meeting.

Now, as regular readers of my blog will know, I began my career in plant genetic resources conservation and use at Birmingham in September 1970, when I joined the one year MSc course on genetic conservation, under the direction of Professor Jack Hawkes. The course had been launched in 1969, and 47 years later there is still a significant genetic resources presence in the School, even though the taught course is no longer offered (and hasn’t accepted students for a few years). Staff have come and gone – me included, but that was 25 years ago less one month, and the only staff member offering research places in genetic resources conservation is Dr Nigel Maxted. He was appointed to a lectureship at Birmingham (from Southampton, where I had been an undergraduate) when I upped sticks and moved to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1991.


Click on this image for the full program and a short bio of each speaker.

Click on each title below; there is a link to each presentation.

Nigel Maxted (University of Birmingham)
Introduction to PGR conservation and use

Ruth Eastwood (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew – Wakehurst Place)
‘Adapting agriculture to climate change’ project

Holly Vincent (PhD student, University of Birmingham)
Global in situ conservation analysis of CWR

Joana Magos Brehm (University of Birmingham)
Southern African CWR conservation

Mike Jackson
Valuing genebank collections

Åsmund Asdal (NordGen)
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Neil Munro (Garden Organic)
Heritage seed library

Maria Scholten
Natura 2000 and in situ conservation of landraces in Scotland: Machair Life (15 minute film)

Aremi Contreras Toledo, Maria João Almeida, and Sami Lama (PhD students, University of Birmingham)
Short presentations on their research on maize in Mexico, landraces in Portugal, and CWR in North Africa

Julian Hosking (Natural England)
Potential for genetic diversity conservation – the ‘Fifth Dimension’ – within wider biodiversity protection

I guess there were about 25-30 participants in the meeting, mainly young scientists just starting their careers in plant genetic resources, but with a few external visitors (apart from speakers) from the Millennium Seed Bank at Kew-Wakehurst Place, the James Hutton Institute near Dundee, and IBERS at Aberystwyth.

The meeting grew out of an invitation to Åsmund Asdal from the Nordic Genetic Resources Center (NordGen) to present a School of Biosciences Thursday seminar. So the audience for his talk was much bigger.


Åsmund is Coordinator of Operation and Management for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and he gave a fascinating talk about the origins and development of this important global conservation facility, way above the Arctic Circle. Today the Vault is home to duplicate samples of germplasm from more than 60 depositor genebanks or institutes (including the international collections held in the CGIAR genebank collections, like that at IRRI.

Nigel Maxted’s research group has focused on the in situ conservation and use of crop wild relatives (CWR), although they are also looking at landrace varieties as well. Several of the papers described research linked to the CWR Project, funded by the Government of Norway through the Crop Trust and Kew. Postdocs and doctoral students are looking at the distributions of crop wild relatives, and using GIS and other sophisticated approaches that were beyond my comprehension, to determine not only where there are gaps in distributions, lack of germplasm in genebank collections, but also where possible priority conservation sites could be established. And all this under the threat of climate change. The various PowerPoint presentations demonstrate these approaches—which all rely on vast data sets—much better than I can describe them. So I encourage you to dip into the slide shows and see what this talented group of scientists has been up to.

Neil Munro from Garden Organic described his organization’s approach to rescue and multiply old varieties of vegetables that can be shared among enthusiasts.


Seeds cannot be sold because they are not on any official list of seed varieties. What is interesting is that one variety of scarlet runner bean has become so popular among gardeners that a commercial seed company (Thompson & Morgan if I remember what he said) has now taken  this variety and selling it commercially.


Julian Hosking from Natural England gave some interesting insights into how his organization was looking to combine the conservation of genetic diversity—his ‘Fifth Dimension’—with conservation of natural habitats in the UK, and especially the conservation of crop wild relatives of which there is a surprisingly high number in the British flora (such as brassicas, carrot, and onions, for example).

So, what about myself? When I was asked to contribute a paper I had to think hard and long about a suitable topic. I’ve always been passionate about the use of plant genetic diversity to increase food security. I decided therefore to talk about the value of genebank collections, how that value might be measured, and I provided examples of how germplasm had been used to increase the productivity of both potatoes and rice.


Nicolay Vavilov is a hero of mine

Although all the speakers developed their own talks quite independently, a number of common themes emerged several times. At one point in my talk I had focused on the genepool concept of Harlan and de Wet to illustrate the biological value (easy to use versus difficult to use) of germplasm in crop breeding.

Jackson FINAL - Valuing Genebank Collections

In the CWR Project research several speakers showed how the genepool concept could be used to set priorities for conservation.

Finally, there was one interesting aspect to the meeting—from my perspective at least. I had seen the titles of all the other papers as I was preparing my talk, and I knew several speakers would be talking about future prospects, especially under a changing climate. I decided to spend a few minutes looking back to the beginning of the genetic conservation movement in which Jack Hawkes was one of the pioneers. What I correctly guessed was that most of my audience had not even been born when I started out on my genetic conservation career, and probably knew very little about how the genetic conservation movement had started, who was involved, and what an important role The University of Birmingham had played. From the feedback I received, it seems that quite a few of the participants were rather fascinated by this aspect of my talk.

How many crop varieties can you name?

Do you ever look at the variety name on a bag of potatoes in the supermarket? I do. Must get a life.

How many potato varieties can you name? Reds? Whites? Or something more specific, like Maris Piper, King Edward, or Desiree to name just three? Or do you look for the label that suggests this variety or that is better for baking, roasting, mashing? Let’s face it, we generally buy what a supermarket puts on the shelf, and the choice is pretty limited. What about varieties of rice? Would it just be long-grain, Japanese or Thai, arboreo, basmati, maybe jasmine? 

When I lived in the Philippines, we used to buy rice in 10 kg bags (although you could buy 25 kg or larger if you so desired). On each, the variety name was printed. This was important because they all had different cooking qualities or taste (or fragrance in the case of the Thai jasmine rice). In Filipino or Thai markets, it’s not unusual to see rice sold loose, with each pile individually labelled and priced, as the two images below show¹:

Today, our rather limited choice of varieties on the shelf does change over time as new ones are adopted by farmers, or promoted by the breeding companies because they have a better flavor, cooking quality, or can be grown more efficiently (often because they have been bred to resist diseases better).

Apples on the other hand are almost always promoted and sold by variety: Golden Delicious, Pink Lady, Granny Smith, Red McIntosh, and Bramley are some of the most popular. That’s because, whether you consciously think about it, you are associating the variety name with fruit color, flavor and flesh texture (and use). But there were so many more apple varieties grown in the past, which we often now describe as ‘heirloom varieties’. Most of these are just not commercial any more.

In many parts of the world, however, what we might consider as heirloom varieties are everyday agriculture for farmers. For example, a potato farmer in the Andes of South America, where the plant was first domesticated, might grow a dozen or more varieties in the same field. A rice farmer in the uplands of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in Southeast Asia grows a whole mixture of varieties. As would a wheat farmer in the Middle East. There’s nothing heirloom or heritage about these varieties. This is survival.

Heirloom potato varieties still grown by farmers in the Andes of Peru.

An upland rice farmer and her family in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic showing just some of the rice varieties they continue to cultivate. Many Lao rice varieties are glutinous (sticky) and particular to that country.

What’s even more impressive is that these farmers know each of the varieties they grow, what characteristics (or traits) distinguish each from the next, whether it is disease resistant, what it tastes like, how productive it will be. And just as we name our children, all these varieties have names that, to our unsophisticated ears, sound rather exotic.  Names can be a good proxy for the genetic diversity of varieties, but it’s not necessarily a perfect association. In the case of potatoes, for example, I have seen varieties that were clearly different (in terms of the shape and color of the tubers) but having the same name; while other varieties that we could show were genetically identical and looked the same had different names. The cultural aspects of naming crop varieties are extremely interesting and can point towards quite useful traits that a plant breeder might wish to introduce into a breeding program. Some years back, my colleague Appa Rao, I and others published a paper on how and why farmers name rice varieties in the Lao PDR.

In the genebank of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños in the Philippines, there are more than 120,000 samples of cultivated rice. And from memory there are at least 65,000 unique names. Are these genetically distinct? In many cases, yes they are. The genebank of the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru conserves about 4000 different potato varieties.

What these potato and rice varieties represent (as do maize varieties from Mexico, wheats from the Middle East, soybeans from China, and beans from South and Central America, and many other crops) is an enormous wealth of genetic diversity or, if you prefer, agricultural biodiversity (agrobiodiversity): the genetic resources of the main staple crops and less widely planted crops that sustain human life. The efforts over the past six decades and more to collect and conserve these varieties (as seeds in genebanks wherever possible) provides a biological safety net for agriculture without depriving farmers of the genetic heritage of their indigenous crops. But as we have seen, time and time again, when offered choices—and that’s what it is all about—farmers may abandon their own crop varieties in favor of newly-bred ones that can offer the promise of higher productivity and better economic return. The choice is theirs (although agricultural policy in a number of countries has worked against the continued cultivation of so-called ‘farmer varieties’).

CGIARThank goodness for the genebanks of 11 centers of the global agricultural research partnership that is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). These centers carefully conserve the largest, most important, and genetically-diverse collections of crop germplasm (and forages and trees) of the most important agricultural species. The flow of genetic materials to users around the world is sustained by the efforts of these genebanks under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. And, of course, these collections have added long-term security because they are duplicated, for the most part, in the long-term vaults of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault¹ deep within a mountain on an island high above the Arctic Circle.

Heritage is not just about conservation. Heritage is equally all about use. So it’s gratifying (and intriguing) to see how IRRI, for example, is partnering with the Philippines Department of Agriculture and farmers in an ‘heirloom rice project‘ that seeks ‘to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of heirloom or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems‘ by adding value to the traditional varieties that farmers continue to grow but which have not, until now, been widely-accepted commercially. I gather a project is being carried out by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) for maize in Mexico that aims to raise the cuisine profile of traditional varieties.

Genetic conservation is about ensuring the survival of heritage varieties (and their wild relatives) for posterity. We owe a debt of gratitude to farmers over the millennia who have been the custodians of this important genetic diversity. It’s a duty of care on which humanity must not renege.

¹ Courtesy of IRRI
² The Seed Vault is owned and administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Food on behalf of the Kingdom of Norway and is established as a service to the world community. The Global Crop Diversity Trust provides support for the ongoing operations of the Seed Vault, as well as funding for the preparation and shipment of seeds from developing countries to the facility. The Nordic Gene Bank (NordGen) operates the facility and maintains a public on-line database of samples stored in the seed vault. An International Advisory Council oversees the management and operations of the Seed Vault.

I used to be uncertain, but now I’m not so sure (updated 5 December 2015)

Regular visitors to my blog will, by now, know that for many years from July 1991 I worked at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños in the Philippines, south of Manila. For the first 10 years, I was head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC), having particular responsibility for the International Rice Genebank (now supported financially by the Global Crop Diversity Trust). Elsewhere on this blog I have written about the genebank and what it takes to ensure the long-term safety of all the germplasm samples (or accessions as they are known) of cultivated rices and related wild species of Oryza.

Well, consider my surprise, not to say a little perplexed, when I recently read a scientific paper¹ that had just been published in the journal Annals of Botany by my former colleagues Fiona Hay (IRRI) and Richard Ellis (University of Reading), with their PhD student Katherine Whitehouse, about the beneficial effect of high-temperature drying on the longevity of rice seeds in storage. Now this really is a big issue for curators of rice germplasm collections, let alone other crop species perhaps.

So why all the fuss, and why am I perplexed about this latest research? Building on a paper published in 2011 by Crisistomo et al. in Seed Science & Technology², this most recent research¹ provides significant evidence, for rice at least, that seed drying at a relatively low temperature and relative humidity, 15C and 15RH—the genebank standard for at least three decades—may not be the best option for some rice accessions, depending on the moisture content of seeds at the time of harvest. It’s counter-intuitive.

But also because germplasm regeneration and production of high quality seeds is one aspect of germplasm conservation most likely to be impacted by climate change, as Brian Ford-Lloyd, Mauricio Bellon and I emphasized in our chapter in Genetic Resources and Climate Change.

To explain further, it’s necessary to take you back 24 years to when I first joined IRRI.


Dr Klaus Lampe, IRRI Director General 1988-1995

The first six months or so
The Director General in 1991, Dr Klaus Lampe, encouraged me to take a broad view of seed management services at IRRI, specifically the operations and efficiency of the International Rice Genebank (IRG). It was also agreed that I should develop research on the germplasm collection and its conservation, something that had not been considered when the GRC Head position was advertised in September 1990. I should add that in negotiating and accepting the GRC position, I had insisted that GRC should have a research arm, so to speak. I guess I was in a fairly strong negotiating position.

Dr TT Chang, first head of the International Rice Germplasm Center at IRRI

Dr TT Chang

Once at IRRI, I didn’t rush into things. After all, I had never run a genebank before let alone work on rice, although much of my career to that date had been involved in various aspects of germplasm conservation and use. But after about six months, I reckon I’d asked enough questions, looked at how the genebank was running on a day-to-day basis. I had developed a number of ideas that I thought should vastly enhance the long-term conservation of rice germplasm, but at the same time allow all the various operations of the genebank run smoothly and hopefully more efficiently. In one sense, managing the individual aspects or operations of a genebank are quite straight-forward. It’s bringing them all together that’s the tricky part.

There was another ‘delicate’ situation to address, however. All the Filipino staff had worked for only one person for many years, my predecessor as head of the genebank (then known as the International Rice Germplasm Center, or IRGC), Dr TT Chang. It’s not an understatement to say that many of these staff were fiercely loyal to Dr Chang (loyalty being one of their greatest virtues), firmly fixed in their ways, and didn’t feel—or maybe understand—that changes were desirable or even necessary. It was a classic change management situation that I was faced with. I needed to help them evaluate for themselves the current genebank management focus, and propose (with more than a little encouragement and suggestions from me) how we might do things differently, and better.

Some radical changes
But I don’t think anyone foresaw the radical changes to the management of the genebank that actually emerged. The genebank was ‘the jewel in IRRI’s crown’, the facility that every visitor to the institute just had to see. It seemed to run like clockwork—and it did, in its own way.

Staffing and responsibilities
Apart from several staffing issues, I was particularly concerned about how rice germplasm was being regenerated in the field, and how it was handled prior to medium-and long-term storage in the genebank. There were also some serious germplasm data issues that needed tackling—but that’s for another blog post, perhaps.

In terms of genebank operations, it was clear that none of the national staff had responsibility (or accountability) for their various activities. In fact, responsibilities for even the same set of tasks, such as germplasm regeneration or characterization, to name just two, were often divided between two or more staff. No-one had the final say. So very quickly I appointed two staff, Flora ‘Pola’ de Guzman and Renato ‘Ato’ Reaño to take charge of the day-today management of the seed collection (and genebank facilities per se) and germplasm regeneration, respectively. Another staff, Tom Clemeno, was given responsibility for all germplasm characterization.

Working in the field
But what seemed rather strange to me was the regeneration of rice germplasm at a site, in rented fields, some 10km east of the IRRI Experiment Station, at Dayap. This meant that everything—staff, field supplies, etc.—had to be transported there daily, or even several times a day. It made no sense to me especially as the institute sat in the middle of a 300 ha experiment station, right on the genebank’s doorstep. In fact, the screenhouse for the wild rice collection had been constructed on one part of the station known as the Upland Farm. To this day I still don’t understand the reasons why Dr Chang insisted on using the site at Dayap. What was the technical justification?

Also the staff were attempting to regenerate the germplasm accessions all year round, in both ‘Dry Season’ (approximately December to May) and the ‘Wet Season’ (June to November). Given that the IRRI experiment station has full irrigation backup, it seemed to me that we should aim to regenerate the rice accessions in the Dry Season when, under average conditions, the days are bright and sunny, and nights cooler, just right for a healthy rice crop, and when the best yields are seen. The Wet Season is characterized obviously by day after day of continuous rainfall, often heavy, with overcast skies, and poor light quality. Not to mention that Wet Season in the Philippines is also ‘typhoon season’. So we separated the regeneration (Dry Season) from the characterization (Wet Season) functions.

But could we do more, particularly with regard to ensuring that only seeds of the highest quality are conserved in the genebank?  That is, to increase the longevity of seeds in storage—the primary objective of the genebank, after all, to preserve these rice varieties and wild species for future generations? And in the light of the latest research by Katherine Whitehouse, Fiona and Richard, did we make the right decisions and were we successful?

Seed environment and seed longevity
That’s where I should explain about the research collaboration with Richard Ellis at that time (Ellis et al. 1993; Ellis & Jackson 1995), and helpful advice we received from Roger Smith and Simon Linington, then at Kew’s Wakehurst Place (and associated with the founding of the Millennium Seed Bank).

Dr N Kameswara Rao

Dr N Kameswara Rao, now head of the genebank at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in the UAE-Dubai.

I hired a post-doctoral fellow, Dr N Kameswara Rao, on a two-year assignment from sister center ICRISAT (based in Hyderabad).  Kameswara Rao had completed his PhD at Reading under seed physiologist Professor Eric Roberts.

We set about studying the relationship between the seed production environment and seed longevity in storage, and the effect of sowing date and harvest time on seed longevity in different rice types, particularly hard-to-conserve temperate (or japonica) rice varieties (Kameswara Rao & Jackson 1996a; 1996b; 1996c; 1997). And these results supported the changes we had proposed (and some even implemented) to germplasm regeneration and seed drying.

In 1991, the IRG did not have specific protocols for germplasm generation such as the appropriate harvest dates, and seed drying appeared to me to be rather haphazard, hazardous even. Let me explain. Immediately after harvest, rice plants in bundles (stems, leave and grains) were dried on flat bed dryers before threshing, heated by kerosene flames, for several days. Following threshing, and before final cleaning and storage, seeds were dried in small laboratory ovens at ~50C. It seemed to me that rice seeds were being cooked. So much for the 15C/15RH genebank standard for seed drying!

During the renovation of institute infrastructure in the early 1990s we installed a dedicated drying room³, with a capacity for 9000 kg, in which seeds could be dried to an equilibrium 6% moisture content (MC) or thereabouts, after a week or so, under the 15/15 regime.

A rethink
Now this approach has been apparently turned on its head. Or has it?

To read the headlines in some reports of the Whitehouse et al. paper, you would think that the 15/15 protocol had been abandoned altogether. This is not my reading of what they have to report. In fact, what they report is most encouraging, and serves as a pointer to others who are engaged in the important business of germplasm conservation.

In her experiments, Katherine compared seeds with different initial MC harvested at different dates that were then dried either under the 15/15 conditions, or put through up to six cycles of drying on a batch drier, each lasting eight hours, before placing them in the 15/15 seed drying room to complete the drying process, before different seed treatments to artificially age them and thereby be able to predict their longevity in storage before potential germination would drop to a dangerous level.

This is what Katherine and her co-authors conclude: Seeds harvested at a moisture content where . . . they could still be metabolically active (>16.2%) may be in the first stage of the post-mass maturity, desiccation phase of seed development and thus able to increase longevity in response to hot-air drying. The genebank standards regarding seed drying for rice and, perhaps, for other tropical species should therefore be reconsidered.

Clearly seeds that might have a higher moisture content at the time of harvest do benefit from a period of high temperature drying. Because of the comprehensive weather data compiled at IRRI over decades, Katherine was also able to infer some of the field conditions and seed status of the Kameswara Rao experiments. And although the latest results do seem to contradict our 1996 and 1997 papers, they provide very strong support for the need to investigate this phenomenon further. After all, Katherine studied only a small sample of rice accessions (compared to the 117,000+ accessions in the genebank).

The challenge will be, if these results are confirmed in independent rice studies—and even in other species, to translate them into a set of practical genebank standards for germplasm regeneration and drying and storage for rice. And it must be possible for genebank managers to apply these new standards easily and effectively. After all many are not so fortunate as GRC to enjoy the same range of facilities and staff support.

I’m really pleased to see the publication of this research. It’s just goes to demonstrate the importance and value of research on genebank collections, whatever the crop or species. Unfortunately, not many genebank are in this league, so it behoves the CGIAR centers to lead from the front; something I’m afraid that not all do, or are even able to do. Quite rightly they keep a focus on managing the collections. But I would argue that germplasm research is also a fundamental component of that management responsibility. Brownie points for IRRI for supporting this role for almost a quarter of a century. And for Fiona as well for ensuring that this important work got off the ground. Good luck to Katherine when she comes to defend her thesis shortly.

A recent seminar
On 12 November, Fiona gave a seminar at IRRI in the institute’s weekly series, titled How long can rice seeds stay alive for? In this seminar she explores changes that have been made to genebank operations over the years and the extent to which these did or did not affect the potential longevity of rice seeds in the genebank. She talks in some detail about the benefits of initial ‘high temperature’ drying that appears to increase potential longevity of seeds. As I queried with her in a series of emails afterwards, it’s important to stress that this high temperature drying does not replace drying in the 15/15 drying room. Furthermore, it will be necessary at some stage to translate these research findings into a protocol appropriate for the long term conservation of rice seeds at -18C.

Fiona has graciously permitted me to post her PowerPoint presentation in this blog, and the audio file that goes with it. You’ll have to open the PPT file and make the slide changes as you listen to Fiona speaking. I’ve done this and it’s actually quite straightforward to follow along and advances the slides and animations in her PPT. Click on the image below to download the PPT file. Just open it then set the audio file running.

Fiona Hay seminar title

Here’s the audio file.

I am also pleased to see that the CGIAR genebanks have also established a seed longevity initiative under the auspices of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. You can read more about it here.

Seed storage – an interesting anecdote
In 1992 we implemented the concept of Active (+3-4C) and Base (-18C) Collections in the IRG. Before then all rice seeds were stored in small (20g if I remember correctly) aluminium cans. We retained the cans for the Base Collection: once sealed we could expect that they would remain so for the next 50 years or more. But in the Active Collection there was no point having cans, if they had to be opened periodically to remove samples for distribution, and could not be re-sealed.

So we changed to laminated aluminium foil packs. Through my Roger Smith and Simon Linington we identified a manufacturer in the UK (from near Manchester I believe) who could make packs of different sizes, using a very high quality and tough laminate of Swedish manufacture (originally developed to mothball armaments). It had an extremely low, if not zero, permeability, and was ideal for seed storage. Unfortunately by the time we made contact, the company had gone into liquidation, but the former managing director was trying to establish an independent business. On the strength of a written commitment from IRRI to purchase at least 250,000 packs, and probably more in the future, this gentleman was able to secure a bank loan, and go into business once again. And IRRI received the seed storage packages that it ordered, and still uses as far as I know. The images below show genebank staff handling both aluminium cans in the Base Collection and the foil packs in the Active Collection. You can see the Active Collection in the video below at minute 1:09.

¹ KJ Whitehouse, FR Hay & RH Ellis, 2015. Increases in the longevity of desiccation-phase developing rice seeds: response to high-temperature drying depends on harvest moisture content. Annals of Botany doi:10.1093/aob/mcv091.

² S Crisostomo, FR Hay, R Reaño and T Borromeo, 2011. Are the standard conditions for genebank drying optimal for rice seed quality? Seed Science & Technology 39: 666-672.

³ If you would like to see what the seed drying room looks like, just go to minute 9:40 in the video below:


Keeping up standards . . . but whose?


Ms Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust that has its headquarters in Bonn, Germany

Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust was interviewed by Suzanne Goldenberg for her recent—and contentious—article in The Guardian newspaper about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV). Ms Haga was also asked about the state of genebanks around the world, and the extent to which they are worthy of funding support from the Trust.

What she is quoted as saying both surprised (shocked even) and perplexed me: ‘What the Crop Trust proposed was a sort of triage on the major seed banks: selecting those worthy of support and winnowing out those not up to standard. In its early days, however, it is a process not unlike natural selection. Only one of 11 major gene banks operated under the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres met the Crop Trust’s standards and would be eligible for those funds: the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

The biggest surprise for everybody when we dived into the international gene banks was that they are not up to the standard that we had expected.’

While I’m proud that the International Rice Genebank at IRRI is held in high regard (‘a model for others to follow’ according to the 1995 External Review of CGIAR genebanks), and that it continues to meet most if not all of the genebank standards, it came as a big surprise to me that 10 other CGIAR genebanks are viewed in a different light. The 1995 review was conducted by a panel and involved 20 experts from national and regional genetic resources programs, including the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Its purpose was to assess the technical, scientific and financial constraints facing the Centre genebanks and to identify opportunities for improving their operations and the services they provide.

But if there were genebank deficiencies identified in the 1995 External Review, why had steps not been taken before now to sort these out? And that perplexes me. To be fair, I don’t know the details of the Crop Trust’s evaluation of each of the genebanks, and on what grounds they were ‘failed’. After all, I ‘retired’ from active genebank management in 2001, and no longer had regular contact with my colleagues in the CGIAR’s Inter-Centre Working Group on Genetic Resources.

Genebank standards
The first genebank standards were published by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) in 1985, and they were revised in 1994. I used the 1985 (and 1994 standards before they were published) when I joined IRRI and began a review of the International Rice Genebank operations. I first visited IRRI in January 1991 when I interviewed for the position of Head of the Genetic Resources Center (GRC), and was rather impressed with the genebank. On joining IRRI in July later that year I was concerned to discover that first impressions had been quite misleading. Over the next six months I uncovered a ‘genebank can of worms’, and had the genebank been reviewed then, it would have failed miserably.

We made an in-depth review of every aspect of genebank management, what would require increased investment (staff, funds, and equipment), and what could be improved significantly just by changing the way we did things in terms of seed management, germplasm regeneration, data management, and the like. Some of these didn’t actually require more resources, just a different approach that freed up existing staff time to concentrate on things that were important. I’m not going to elaborate. What I can say is that we enhanced operations right across the genebank operations, and I have described some of what we did in an earlier blog post.

A lot has been made of the publication of the latest Genebank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, by FAO in 2013 (revised in 2014), after endorsement by the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at its Fourteenth Session in 2013. The wheels of progress turn rather slowly at FAO. And I can’t remember how many years it has taken to come to agreement over the latest version.

The standards are non-binding, but they do provide guidance on best practice for a whole range of germplasm, and of course the norms that have to be followed today for germplasm exchange and use under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture using material transfer agreements.

Lack of progress?
What I cannot fathom is why the CGIAR genebanks did not apparently take a hard look at their operations before now and what is needed to bring them into line with accepted standards. As custodians of the world’s most important genetic resources collections I believe it was their obligation to do so.  Or was it that center managements were waiting for someone else to step in and pick up the financial tab, rather than investing, as IRRI did, from its own resources?  I wonder if many genebanks (not just those of the CGIAR) have held off making any changes or investment until the latest genebank standards had been ‘approved’ by the FAO Commission.

When I presented my upgrade plans to IRRI management way back in 1992 or so, we were fortunate that the institute was undergoing a thorough refurbishment of its physical plant. IRRI management was surprised however when I presented my ‘resources shopping list’ as no-one had expected that the genebank would need any attention. To everyone concerned, it was the ‘jewel in the institute’s crown’ that operated like clockwork. My genebank upgrade plan had to compete for resources with all the other things that needed improving around IRRI. Fortunately for the cause of rice genetic resources IRRI management approved what I has asked for (almost in its entirety) and we made the infrastructure improvements that went along with the changes to genebank operations.


Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, Head of the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center at IRRI

I am pleased that my successor as Head of the Genetic Resources Center (now the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center), Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, has built on what I started. Many of the changes we made during the 1990s are still in place, but improved in a number of respects. For instance, all packets of seeds are now bar-coded, data management systems have been integrated with the rice breeding databases (something we started before I left GRC), more sub-zero cold storage capacity has been added, and even more screenhouse space for managing the wild rice species collection. The publication of the latest genebank standards provides another yardstick against which to measure the operations of the International Rice Genebank. I’m confident that there is and will continue to be a close congruence between the two.



Don’t put all your eggs in one basket . . . or your seeds in a single genebank

On 20 May 2015, a long article was published in The Guardian about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), popularly—and rather unfortunately—known as the ‘Doomsday Vault’. I’ve recently been guilty of using that moniker simply because that’s how the vault has come to be known, rightly or wrongly, in the media.

Authored by US-based environment correspondent of The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, the article had the headline grabbing title: The doomsday vault: the seeds that could save a post-apocalyptic world.

You get a flavor of what’s in store, however, from the very first paragraph. Goldenberg writes: ‘One Tuesday last winter, in the town nearest to the North Pole, Robert Bjerke turned up for work at his regular hour and looked at the computer monitor on his desk to discover, or so it seemed for a few horrible moments, that the future of human civilisation was in jeopardy.’

Turns out there was a relatively minor glitch in one of the supplementary cooling systems of this seed repository under the Arctic permafrost where millions of seeds of the world’s most important food staples and other species are being stored, duplicating the germplasm conservation efforts of the genebanks from which they were sent. Hardly the stuff of Apocalypse Now. So while making a favorable case for the need to store seeds in a genebank like the Svalbard vault, Goldenberg ends her introduction with this somewhat controversial statement: ‘Seed banks are vulnerable to near-misses and mishaps. That was the whole point of locating a disaster-proof back-up vault at Svalbard. But what if there was a bigger glitch – one that could not be fixed by borrowing a part from the local shop? There is now a growing body of opinion that the world’s faith, in Svalbard and the Crop Trust’s broader mission to create seed banks, is misplaced. [The emphasis in bold is mine.] Those who have worked with farmers in the field, especially in developing countries, which contain by far the greatest variety of plants, say that diversity cannot be boxed up and saved in a single container—no matter how secure it may be. Crops are always changing, pests and diseases are always adapting, and global warming will bring additional challenges that remain as yet unforeseen. In a perfect world, the solution would be as diverse and dynamic as plant life itself.’ 

I have several concerns about the article—and the many comments it elicited that stem, unfortunately, from lack of understanding on the one hand and ignorance and prejudice on the other.

  • Goldenberg gives the impression that it’s an either/or situation of ex situ conservation in a genebank versus in situ conservation in farmers’ fields or natural environments (in the case of crop wild relatives).
  • There is a perception apparently held by some that the development of the SGSV has been detrimental to the cause of in situ conservation of crop wild relatives.
  • Because there is no research or use of the germplasm stored in the SGSV, then it only has an ‘existence value’. Of course this does not take into account the research on and use of the same germplasm in the genebanks from which it was sent to Svalbard. Therefore Svalbard by its very nature is assumed to be very expensive.
  • The role of Svalbard as a back-up to other genebank efforts is not emphasized sufficiently. As many genebanks do not have adequate access to long-term conservation facilities, the SGSV is an important support at no cost directly to those genebanks as far as I am aware. However, Svalbard can never be a panacea. If seeds of poor quality (i.e less than optimum viability) are stored in the vault then they will deteriorate faster than good seeds. As the saying goes: ‘Junk in, junk out’.
  • The NGO perspective is interesting. It seems it’s hard for some of our NGO colleagues to accept that use of germplasm stored in genebanks actually does benefit farmers.Take for example the case of submergence tolerant rice, now being grown by farmers in Bangladesh and other countries on land where a consistent harvest was almost unheard of before. Or the cases where farmers have lost varieties due to natural disasters but have had them replaced because they were in a genebank. My own experience in the Cagayan valley in the northern Philippines highlights this very well after a major typhoon in the late 1990s devastated the rice agriculture of that area. See the section about on farm management of rice germplasm in this earlier post. They also still harbour a concern that seeds in genebanks are at the mercy of being expropriated by multinationals. In the comments, Monsanto was referred to many times, as was the issue of GMOs. I addressed this in the comment I contributed.

I added this comment that same day on The Guardian web site:
‘For a decade during the 1990s I managed one of the world’s largest and most important genebanks – the International Rice Genebank at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Large, because it holds over 116,000 samples of cultivated varieties and wild species of rice. And important, because rice is the most important food staple feeding half the world’s population several times daily.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), the so-called ‘Doomsday Vault’ in Spitsbergen, holds on behalf of IRRI an almost complete duplicate set of samples (called ‘accessions’), in case something should happen to the genebank in Los Baños, south of Manila. I should add that for decades the USDA has also held a duplicate set in its genebank at Fort Collins in Colorado, under exactly the same ‘black box’ terms as the SGSV.

Germplasm is conserved so that it can be studied and used in plant breeding to enhance the productivity of the rice crop, to increase its resilience in the face of climate change, or to meet the challenge of new strains of diseases and pests. The application of molecular biology is unlocking the mysteries of this enormous genetic diversity, making it accessible for use in rice improvement much more efficiently than in past decades.

Many genebanks round the world and the collections they manage do not have access to long-term and safe storage facilities. This is where the SGSV plays an important role. Genebanks can be at risk from a whole range of natural threats (earthquakes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions, etc.) or man-made threats: conflicts, lack of resources, and inadequate management that can lead to fires, flooding, etc. Just take the example of the International Rice Genebank. The Philippines are subject to the natural threats mentioned, but the genebank was designed and built to withstand these. The example of the ICARDA genebank in Aleppo highlights the threat to these facilities from being located in a conflict zone.

To understand more about what it means to conserve a crop like rice please visit this post on my blog.  There is an enlightening 15 minute video there that I made about the genebank.

It is not a question of taking any set of seeds and putting them into cold storage. Only ‘good’ seeds will survive for any length of time under sub-zero conditions. Many studies have shown that if stored at -18C, seeds with initial high viability may be stored for decades even hundreds of years. The seeds of many plant species – including most of the world’s most important food crops like rice, wheat, maize and many others conform to this pattern. What I can state unequivocally is that the seeds from the genebanks of the world’s most important genebanks, managed like that of IRRI under the auspices of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), have been routinely tested for viability and only the best sent to Svalbard.

Prof. Phil Pardey, University of Minnesota

Prof. Phil Pardey, University of Minnesota

The other aspect of Goldenberg’s otherwise excellent article are the concerns raised by a number of individuals whose ‘comments’ are quoted. I count both Phil Pardey and Nigel Maxted among my good friends, and it seems to me that their comments have been taken completely out of context. I have never heard them express such views in such a blunt manner. Their perspectives on conservation and use, and in situ vs. ex situ are much more nuanced as anyone will see for themselves from reading their many publications. The SEARICE representative I do not know, but I’ve had many contacts with her organization. It’s never a question of genebank or ex situ conservation versus on-farm or in situ conservation. They are complementary and mutually supportive approaches. Crop varieties will die out for a variety of reasons. If they can be stored in a genebank so much the better (not all plant species can be stored successfully as seeds, as was mentioned in Goldenberg’s article). The objection to genebanks on the grounds of permitting multinationals to monopolize these important genetic resources is a red herring and completely without foundation.

So the purpose of the SGSV is one of not ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’. Unfortunately the name ‘Doomsday Vault’ as used by Goldenberg has come to imply a post cataclysm world. It’s really much more straightforward than that. The existence of the SGSV is part of humanity’s genetic insurance policy, risk mitigation, and business continuity plan for a wise and forward-thinking society.’

Over the next couple of days others chipped in with first hand knowledge of the SGSV or genetic conservation issues in general.

Simon Jeppsonsiminjeppson is someone who has first-hand knowledge and experience of the SGSV, and he wrote: ‘I’m currently working as the project coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on behalf of NordGen and I just wanted to add some of my reflections on this article some of the comments.

This article is an interesting read but a rather unbalanced one. The temperature increase that is described as putting the world heritage in jeopardy is a misconception. There has been a background study used as a worst case scenario during the planning stage of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault based on the seeds stored in the old abandoned mine shaft mentioned. These results were published in 2003 and even the most recent data (after 25 years in permafrost conditions prevailing in the same mountain without active cooling) shows that all samples are still viable. Anyone curious about this can for themselves try out various storage temperatures and find out the predicted storage time for specific crops at:

Further I have some reflections regarding some of the recently posted comments. The statement “Most seed resources for plant breeding come from farmers’ fields via national seed stores in developing countries: these countries are not depositing in Svalbard.” is wrong; more than 60% of the deposited material originates from developing countries. Twenty-three of depositors represent national or regional institutes situated in developing counties, 12 are international centers and 28 are from developed countries according to IMF. This data is readily available at:

Finally, a comment about the statement that “Seeds will not be distributed – only ever sent back to the institute that provided them. The reason is that seeds commonly have seed-borne diseases, sometimes nasty viruses and the rest.” This statement is also a misconception. The seeds samples stored in the vault are of the same seed lots already readily distributed worldwide from the depositing institutes. There are more than 1750 plant genetic institutes many of them distributing several thousand samples every year.’

maxted-nigel-Cropped-110x146Nigel Maxted is a senior lecturer in the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham. As I suspected, when I commented on Goldenberg’s article, Nigel’s contribution to the discussion was taken out of context. He commented: ‘I believe I have been mis-quoted in this article, I do think the Svalbard genebank is worthwhile and I hope the Trust reach their funding goal, even though ex situ does freeze evolution for the accessions included, it provides our best chance of long-term stability for preserving agrobiodiversity in an increasingly unstable world.

I was trying to make a more nuanced point to Suzanne, that I strongly support complementary conservation that involves both in situ and ex situ actions. However at the moment if we compare the financial commitment to in situ and ex situ conservation of agrobiodiversity, globally over 99% of funding is spent on ex situ alone, therefore by any stretch of the imagination can we be considered to be implementing a complementary approach? I was used to make a point and I suppose it would be naive of me to complain, but I hope one day we will stop trying to create an artificial dichotomy between the two conservation strategies and wake up to the need for real complementary conservation. Conservation that includes a balanced range of in situ actions as well to conservation agrobiodiversity before it is too late for us all.’

HawtinGeoff Hawtin is someone who knows what he’s talking about. As Director General of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute for just over a decade from 1991, and the founding Executive Secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Geoff had several telling comments: ‘As someone who has worked for the last 25 years to help conserve the genetic diversity of our food crops, I welcome the article by Suzanne Goldenberg in spite of its very many inaccuracies and misconceptions. She rightly draws attention to the plight of what is arguably the world’s most important resource in the fight against food and nutritional insecurity. If this article results in more attention and funds being devoted to safeguarding this resource—whether on farm or in genebanks—it will have served a useful purpose.

The dichotomy between in situ and ex situ conservation is a false one. The two are entirely complementary and both approaches are vital. For farmers around the world the genetic diversity of their landraces and local varieties is their lifeblood—a living resource that they can use and mould to help meet their current and future needs and those of their families.

But we all live in a world of rapid and momentous change and a world in which we all depend for our food on crops that may have originated continents away. The diversity an African farmer—or plant breeder—needs to improve her maize or beans may well be found in those regions where these crops were originally domesticated – in this case in Latin America, where to this day genetic diversity of these two crops remains greatest. Without the work of genebanks in gathering and maintaining vast collections of such genetic diversity, how can such farmers and breeders hope to have access to the traits they need to develop new crop varieties that can resist or tolerate new diseases and pests, or that can produce higher yields of more nutritious food, or that are able to meet the ever growing threats of heat, drought and flooding posed by climate change?

Scientists have been collecting genetic diversity since at least the 1930s, but efforts expanded significantly in the 1970s and 80s in response to growing recognition that diversity was rapidly disappearing from farmers fields in many parts of the world as a result of major shifts in agricultural production systems and the introduction and adoption of new, higher yielding varieties. Today, thanks to these pioneering efforts, diversity is being conserved in genebanks that no longer exists in the wild or on farmers’ fields.

The common misconception that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault exists to save the world following an apocalyptic disaster is perpetuated, even in the title of the article. In reality, the SGSV is intended to provide a safety-net as a back-up for the world’s more than 1,700 genebanks which themselves, as pointed out in the article, are often far from secure. At a cost of about £6 million to build and annual running and maintenance costs of less than £200,000 surely this ranks as the world’s most inexpensive yet arguably most valuable insurance policy.’

Susan_BragdonFinally, among the genetic resources experts, Susan Bragdon made the following comments: ‘I think the author overstates the fierce debates between the proponents of ex situ and in situ conservation. Most would agree that both are needed with in situ being complemented by ex situ.

The controversy over money is because funders are not understanding this need for both and may feel they have checked off that box by funding Svalbard (which is perhaps better seen as an insurance policy—one never hopes to have to use one’s insurance policy.) Svalbard is of course sexier than the on-farm development and conservation of diversity by small scale farmers around the world. Donors can jet in, go dog sledding, see polar bears. Not as sexy to visit most small-scale farms but there are more and more exceptions (e.g., the Potato Park in Peru)

Articles like this set up a false choice between ex situ and in situ which is simply not shared except by a few loud voices. We need to work together to create the kind of incentives that make small scale farming in agrobiodiverse settings an attractive life choice.’

In her staff biography on the Quaker United Nations Office web page, it relates that ‘from 1997-2005 Susan worked with the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute as a Senior Scientist, Law & Policy, on legal and policy issues related to plant genetic resources and in particular managed projects on intellectual property rights, Farmers’ Rights, biotechnology and biological diversity, and on developing decision-making tools for the development of policy and law to manage plant genetic resources in the interest of food security.’

Comments are now closed on The Guardian website for this article. I thought it would useful to bring together some of the expert perspectives in the hope of balancing the arguments—since so many readers had taken the ‘apocalypse’ theme at face value— and making them more widely available.

When I have time, I’ll address some of the perspectives about genebank standards.