Botanists think there are up to 80,000 wild species of flowering plant left to discover. But a scarcity of funds hampers efforts to collect them. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, ratified by 195 states and the European Union, made things more complicated. It recognised plants as part of countries’ national heritage and outlawed “biopiracy”—profiting from plants without compensating the countries in which they were found.
That made exploiting plants fairer but collecting them harder. Some officials saw a chance to get rich. “Suddenly everyone thought these plants were incredibly valuable,” says Mr Hawtin. Getting permission to go on a collecting trip became nearly impossible. “Anybody could say no to a collecting expedition and very few people could say yes.”
Permits became sine qua non, but in poorer countries the environment ministries that were expected to issue them did not always exist. Collectors might see their applications bounced from one department to another, each unwilling to wield its rubber stamp. “No one wanted to be accused in their local paper of helping the biopirates,” says Mr Hawtin.
Persistent botanists have since earned some governments’ trust. It is now much easier to get approval for expeditions than it was in the 1990s, though often with restrictions on what may be collected. “Things are much better now than they were ten years ago,” says Sandy Knapp, head of the plants division at the Natural History Museum in London. A three-year permit from the Peruvian government allows her to collect specimens of Solanaceae, the family that includes tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines…The Millennium Seed Bank now holds workshops in many countries on collection and conservation techniques. It collaborates on expeditions and produces guidebooks to help locals locate and collect seeds for themselves. Yet some countries persist in imposing self-defeating restrictions. India’s biodiversity law, passed in 2002, makes exporting seeds very difficult and sits poorly with its international obligations. If governments fail to understand the urgency of preserving—and sharing—their biodiversity, there may soon be precious little left to collect.
Excerpts from Botany and bureaucracy: A dying breed, Economist, Sept. 12, 2015, at 55
“Crop wild relatives”—the wild ancestors of cultivated plants—are a valuable weapon in the fight against hunger. Together with varieties used by traditional farmers, they contain a wealth of genetic diversity. Yet they are under-researched and under-collected. With their survival threatened by population growth and environmental damage, the race is on to find them before it is too late.
Climate change is expected to cause higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, changing the distribution of pests and diseases. Population growth will add to the pressure on productive land: the UN expects the number of people in the world to rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050. …Dependence on a few staples worsens the consequences of any crop failure. Just 30 crops provide humans with 95% of the energy they get from food, and just five—rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum—provide 60%. A single variety of banana—Cavendish—accounts for 95% of exports. A fast-spreading pest or disease could see some widely eaten foodstuffs wiped out.
That makes it even more important to preserve the genetic diversity found in crop wild relatives and traditional varieties as an insurance policy. Alas, much of it has already disappeared. The FAO estimates that 75% of the world’s crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000. As farming intensified, commercial growers favoured a few varieties of each species—those that were most productive and easiest to store and ship.
According to Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organisation based in Germany, in the 1800s American farmers and gardeners grew 7,100 named varieties of apple. Today, at least 6,800 of them are no longer available, and a study in 2009 found that 11 accounted for more than 90% of those sold in America. Just one, “Red Delicious”, a variety with a thick skin that hides bruises, accounts for 37%.
Seed banks are the best hope of preserving those that remain. Dehydrating and freezing seeds means that they can be kept for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years, and still sprout when given light and water (as botanists need to do on occasion). Some 7.4m samples are already in seed banks around the world, but huge gaps exist.
As part of a study to be published later this year, Colin Khoury and Nora Castañeda-Álvarez of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a research facility in Colombia, studied the state of conservation of more than a thousand crop wild relatives in seed banks. They found that for over 70% there were either too few samples for safety or none at all.
The Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) in Sussex, part of Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens, is the world’s largest wild-plant seed bank, housing 76,000 samples from more than 36,000 species. It co-ordinates “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change”, a $50m, ten-year international programme funded by Norway to collect and store wild relatives of 29 important crops, cross them with their domesticated kin and share the results with breeders and farmers. Its freezers are solar-powered and its vault is built to withstand a direct hit by a plane (Gatwick airport is close by). Other seed banks are more vulnerable. Staff at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, an institute once based in Syria, now found in Lebanon, shipped 150,000 samples to save them from being damaged in the former country’s civil war; seed banks in Afghanistan and Iraq have been destroyed. The Philippines lost one to fire.
Located in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, CIAT is home to more than 300 scientists. It has a mandate from the UN to protect, research and distribute beans and cassava, staple foodstuffs for 900m people around the world. Its seed bank, housed in a former abattoir, contains over 36,000 samples of beans, more than any other seed bank, and varieties developed there feed 30m people in Africa.
For many years CIAT’s researchers concentrated on creating varieties that could cope with poor soils and drought. But they have now turned their attention to heat resistance. Earlier this year they announced that they had found heat resistance in the tepary bean, a hardy cousin of the common bean cultivated since pre-Columbian times in northern Mexico and America’s south-west. Crosses with commonly cultivated beans such as pinto, black and kidney beans show potential to withstand temperatures up to 5°C higher than those common varieties can cope with. Even a lesser increase in heat resistance, of 3°C, would mean beans could continue to be cultivated in almost all parts of central and eastern Africa, says Steve Beebe of CIAT’s bean-breeding programme…
The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which came into effect in 2004 and has been signed by 135 countries and the European Union, identifies 35 food crops that are considered so important to global food security and sustainable agriculture that their genetic diversity should be widely shared. But it has worked less well than hoped. In 2013 a group of Norwegian researchers sent letters to 121 countries requesting seeds. Only 44 complied. Communication broke down with 23 and 54 did not even reply.
If a big crop were to fail, a single useful gene lurking in one wild relative could prevent calamity. PwC, an accountancy firm, values the genes derived from the wild relatives of the 29 crops regarded as most important by the MSB at $120 billion. Preserving the genetic diversity that remains would be an excellent investment.
Agricultural Biodiversity, Banks for Bean Counters, Economist, Sept. 12, 2015, at 54
Syria’s civil war has forced scientists to request the first-ever withdrawal of seeds from a Doomsday vault built in the Arctic to safeguard the world’s food supplies…The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) said it has made a request to take back some of its samples from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The vault was created by the Norwegian government in 2008 to protect vital crops such as wheat against global disasters, war or disease.
It will be the first time seeds have been withdrawn from the facility, which lies more than 800 miles inside Arctic Circle — midway between Norway and the North Pole — and is the largest vault of its kind in the world. Built into the mountainside on the Svalbard archipelago, it relies on permafrost and thick rock to ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power..,ICARDA has requested approximately 16,500 of its seed samples — one seventh of the total it has stored in Svalbard — and hopes to reproduce them at its other facilities in Morocco and the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. Eventually it will send new samples back to Norway…
He said some scientists were still present at the Aleppo facility but that its one-time headquarters had been occupied by armed groups. “Fortunately it is not ISIS, they are some fundamentalist groups,” he said. “They seem to co-exist. They are using the land for their own benefit, for example to grow legumes, but we have no control of it…..The Svalbard seed bank has exactly 865,871 samples from every country in the world, Asdal said. “In fact, we have seeds from more countries than now exist,” he explained, since some of the older seeds are from now-defunct nations such as Czechoslovakia. Syria’s civil war has killed a quarter of a million people since 2011, according to United Nations estimates, and driven 11 million more from their homes.
Excerpts from ALASTAIR JAMIESON, Syria War Forces First Withdrawal from Svalbard Global Seed Vault,NBC News, Sept. 25, 2015
Botanic gardens around the world will sign an historic agreement on 23 May 2012 to restore the world’s damaged ecosystems. Responding to a United Nations target to restore at least 15 percent of the world’s damaged ecosystems by 2020, the following institutions have agreed to work together to form a new Ecological Restoration Alliance:
•Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK
•Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, UK
•Missouri Botanical Garden, USA
•Brackenhurst Botanic Garden, Kenya
•Kings Park and Botanic Garden, Australia
•National Tropical Botanical Garden, USA
•Rio de Janeiro Botanic Garden, Brazil
•Instituto de Ecología, A.C. “Francisco Javier Clavijero Botanic Garden”, Mexico
•Royal Botanical Gardens, Canada
The Alliance has ambitious aims, with a plan to restore 100 damaged, degraded or destroyed ecosystems. Restoration projects will be conducted on six continents, drawing on the proven restoration knowledge, capacity and experience of the allied botanic gardens, arboreta and seed banks. The places to be targeted include tropical forests, prairies, wild places within cities, wetlands and coastal sites – ecosystems that are under threat and are no longer able to provide essential services and resources for sustaining human livelihoods and biodiversity.
Other botanic gardens in China, South Africa, UK, USA and Venezuela are committed to joining or supporting the Alliance. The combined expertise of members will be drawn together to build global capacity for pragmatic yet well-informed ecological restoration. The lessons learned from the initial flagship projects will be applied to other places, enhancing the contribution of restoration to achieving a healthy and sustainable planet. A new generation of practitioners will be trained and guidance provided to industry and governments toward best practices for land restoration. This ambitious 20 year initiative, developed by botanic gardens and facilitated by Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI), responds to urgent global needs expressed in both the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity and the Millennium Development Goals.
For more info see Ecological Restoration Alliance
Opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault is a backup for the world’s 1,750 seed banks, storehouses of agricultural biodiversity. To illustrate the need for it, the Philippines’ national seed bank was destroyed by fire in January, six years after it was damaged by flooding. Those of Afghanistan and Iraq were destroyed in recent wars. Should the conflict in Syria reach that country’s richest store, in Aleppo, the damage would now be less. Some 110,000 Syrian seed samples are now in the Svalbard vault, out of around 750,000 samples in all. “When I see this,” says Mr Fowler, looking lovingly at his latest consignment, “I just think, ‘thank goodness, they’re safe.’”
The Svalbard vault is protected by two airlocks, at the end of a tunnel sunk 160 metres into the permafrost of Norway’s Arctic archipelago, outside the village of Longyearbyen, one of the world’s most northerly habitations. It is maintained at a constant temperature of -18°C. This is serious disaster preparedness: if its electricity were cut, Mr Fowler reckons the vault would take two centuries to warm to freezing point. He also enthusiastically points to its concave tunnel-head, designed to deflect the force of a missile strike. Such precautions have spawned the facility’s nickname: the Doomsday Vault.
Mr Fowler, who manages it on behalf of Norway’s government, an association of Nordic gene banks and an international body, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, reckons the vault contains samples of around two-thirds of the world’s stored crop biodiversity. To augment this, he will also soon embark on a project, funded with $50m from Norway, to collect the seeds of many crops’ wild ancestors.
Most seed banks were created in the 1970s and 1980s, towards the end of a global surge in crop yields, wrought largely through the adoption of hybridised seed varieties, known as the Green Revolution. The idea was born of a realisation that a vast amount of agricultural biodiversity was being lost, as farmers abandoned old seeds, often locally developed over centuries, for the new hybrids. The extent of the loss, which continues today, is poorly documented. The extinction of non-human species is generally better studied than the loss of the genetic material that sustains humanity. Yet, largely on the basis of named crop varieties that are no longer extant, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields. India is reckoned to have had over 100,000 varieties of rice a century ago; it now has only a few thousand. America once had around 5,000 apple varieties, and now has a few hundred. Such measures probably underestimate the scale of the losses, because a single traditional seed variety often contains a lot of genetic diversity.
It is hard to quantify how much this matters; but the long-term risks are potentially huge. Agricultural biodiversity is the best hedge against future blights, including pests, diseases and climate change. That is why plant breeders, from poor smallholders to the world’s biggest biotech firms, masters of the genetically modified organism (GMO), continuously update their genetic stock, often from obscure sources. “If we ignore genetic diversity while we develop GMO products, we risk a disease or pest emerging that will wipe those types out,” says John Soper, head of crop genetics research at Pioneer Hi-Bred, the seed division of DuPont, a chemicals giant. He says the firm has drawn genetic material from its stock of wild American sunflower seeds three or four times in the past decade, in a bid to make its commercial varieties resistant to broomrape, a parasitic blight of southern Europe. It also has plans to cope with climate change, having recently opened a research outfit in chilly western Canada. It is trying to develop local varieties of maize (corn) and soyabean, which are not grown there commercially, but may be as the temperature climbs.
Yet biotech firms cannot be relied upon to look after crop biodiversity. Their gene banks are too small and too concentrated on a handful of commercial crops. Their urge to make profits is not necessarily aligned with the wider cause of feeding mankind. Hence a recent push to boost national gene banks, of which the Svalbard vault is a product….In many such developing countries, gene banks are impoverished and badly managed, which is another threat to their stocks. Pondering one of the risks, Mr Fowler warns “a millennium of agricultural activity can disappear one night in a bowl of porridge.”
Yet seed banks are not the only answer to saving crop biodiversity: it also needs conserving in fields. This is because seed banks rarely store varieties of crop that do not produce seeds, including cassava, bananas and many other fruits and berries. They also rarely record local knowledge of their deposits, which can be almost as important as the seeds themselves. Unlike seed banks, moreover, nature is anything but ossified: it is gloriously adaptable. Over the past 15 years in West Africa, for example, populations of traditional sorghum varieties have been observed shortening their growth cycle by two weeks in response to a curtailed rainy season. The best way to harness this adaptability is simply to let nature get on with it.
Farmers’ eagerness to jettison their wily old landraces is understandable. Improved varieties of seed are estimated to have boosted yields by 21-43%, independently of fertilisers and other inputs. To conserve crop biodiversity amid the inevitable rush for hybrids, seed banks have an important role. But another solution—as to many climate-related problems—is to make drastic improvements in land-use planning, and then encourage strategically placed farmers to dedicate a small area to traditional crops. Ways of doing this include developing niche markets for their endearingly old-school vegetables and grains or even, as in Nepal, with the national equivalent of a harvest festival. Its government regularly dishes out prizes to those farmers with the most biodiverse land.
Excerpt, Agricultural biodiversity: Banking against Doomsday, Economist, Mar. 10, 2012, at 71