Seed ‘genebanks’ are a fast track to food security — not just a last resort
Designed to safeguard as many of the world’s crops as possible for future worst-case scenarios, seed “genebanks” might appear to be last-resort archives that are distant from the challenges of today.
Yet, genebanks, including the famous Svalbard “Doomsday Vault”, are much more than a deep freezer for future food security. They are a living resource that is constantly maintained and restocked to enable scientists, farmers and countries to adapt to the climate threats facing food systems today and in the years to come.
With recent advances in crop conservation as well as plant DNA sequencing, the modern genebank not only serves as a genetic library, but it helps accelerate the development of new and improved varieties of the world’s most important staple crops.
From the raw genetic material stored and cataloged in genebanks, scientists uncover and mix the desirable traits needed for specific purposes in crop breeding, which can include genes to make crops hardier in extreme temperatures or drought.
At the same time, new varieties that are more productive and less detrimental to the environment can also be developed, helping farmers worldwide to achieve more with their crops despite increasingly unpredictable weather conditions.
With the next generation of genebanks, led by the new “Future Seeds” facility for beans, cassava and forages for livestock coming online in Colombia this year, researchers and farmers alike will have the very latest tools needed to accelerate the adaptation of agriculture across the globe now, not just in the distant future.
Firstly, upgraded genebank technologies can help scientists tailor new climate-proof crops to specific locations, using even more accurate mapping and modeling of potential climate scenarios to develop new crop varieties with precise qualities.
For instance, by using the samples stored in the predecessor of the Future Seeds genebank, scientists developed heat-tolerant beans. These more resilient varieties directly help smallholder farmers in hotter climates to continue growing a key source of plant-based protein, even as rising temperatures could reduce the available area suitable for growing beans by as much as 50 percent by 2050.
And with the help of new, state-of-the-art artificial intelligence (AI) driven tools that can analyze enormous volumes of crop samples, as well as model future climate scenarios, scientists will be able to cross-reference the exact crop requirements with a back catalog of genetic traits, making climate adaptation for crops even more precise and targeted.
This allows researchers to easily and quickly fine-tune improved crop varieties according to specific farmer demands and their local climatic conditions. For instance, crops adapted for the conditions in Uganda, which is projected to become wetter with higher temperatures, will need different genetic strengths for cultivation in Malawi, which is instead expected to become drier.
Secondly, new genebanks also provide the resources for researchers to increase the nutritional value of crops, which could otherwise be reduced from the impact of climate change.
With enhanced analytical technologies providing a broader snapshot of available traits, scientists now develop varieties that offset any future reductions in nutrient levels caused by rising temperatures. For instance, some studies have shown that drought and heat stress, as a result of climate change, could reduce the amount of iron and other minerals in common foods such as beans.
Yet, by making the most of the research and technology hosted in the genebanks, scientists have already refined and adapted recent breakthroughs such as high-iron beans and pro-vitamin A cassava, which are critical to nutrition and incomes across the global tropics. And by genetically increasing the digestibility of the protein in beans, one of the biggest sources of plant-based proteins in the world, scientists can use genebanks to bolster the nutrition of communities most vulnerable to the impact of climate change.
Finally, these facilities also help scientists improve the resilience of staple crops to pests and diseases.
Disease-resistant crops, such as improved climbing beans, which are both resistant to root rot and more suited to local conditions, are just one variety of hardier crops developed by crop breeders. They are now widely adopted by farmers across Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.
As climate change spurs the emergence of still-unknown pests and diseases, responding to emerging threats as quickly as possible will be increasingly important.
With the impact of climate change becoming more evident in farmers’ fields across the globe, scientists must take greater advantage of the range of options that we have in our toolkit. Chief among these is the modern genebank, which provides open-source breeding material, training and education, in pursuit of the sustainable food systems of the future.
As the keepers of the genetic building blocks of food systems, seed genebanks should be seen less as the last bastion of food security in a climate apocalypse, and more as the first line of defense from which we can address hunger, malnutrition and poverty in a warming world.
Juan Lucas Restrepo is global director of partnerships and advocacy at CGIAR, a global partnership of organizations dedicated to building food security and, director-general of the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).