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Seed Banks and the Global Crop Diversity Trust
Alex Steffen, 9 Jun 05

As Gary Snyder puts it, there is no such thing as a post-agricultural civilization. And, in the long run, agriculture itself is dependent on crop diversity. Even if smart breeding lives up to its promise, having genetic material from which to work is still vital. Therefore, seed banks represent a key piece of infrastructure for building and preserving a future worth having.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), focuses on plants suitable for sustainable agriculture in arid climates. ICARDA banks seeds from 131,000 varieties of plants, gathered from across the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa.

Unfortunately, according to a recent editorial in Nature, political tensions between the West and Syria may threaten ICARDA's already tenuous operations. Worse, ICARDA is not alone -- many seed banks elsewhere are struggling to preserve their collections:

Of the 1,460 gene banks around the world, only 35 meet international standards for long-term storage. These include the gene banks of ICARDA and of the other Future Harvest Centres. The FAO, moreover, says that nearly-one fifth of the 5.4 million seeds stored in gene banks are degenerating.

There may be an answer, though: the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust aims to match the long term nature of conservation needs with long term secure and sustainable funding. At its centre will be an endowment that will provide a permanent source of funding for crop diversity collections around the world. The Trust will help salvage the worldÂ’s most important crop collections and guarantee their ongoing healthy and safe conservation. A further goal of the Trust is to assist the development of a rational and efficient global system of crop diversity conservation. To achieve these goals, the Trust seeks to raise an endowment of $260 million and additional funds to provide upgrading and capacity building to particularly needy genebanks.

That would seem to me, in the big picture of things, to be a paltry amount of money to spend to secure the future of agriculture.

(I'm sure Nikolai Vavilov would agree. Vavilov was a geneticist and the arch-enemy of Lysenkoism. He built one of the world's first and foremost seedbanks, which at least one staffer starved to death defending during the Siege of Leningrad. There are, I think, few more poignant images of duty to the future than that. Vavilov himself died in prison after being denounced for his work.)

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