Genebanks: An investment in the future of food
by Christoph Beck, Head of Corporate Operations, The Crop Trust
There are around 30,000 edible plants out there, but rice and wheat provide over half of our calories. While it's great that we've found ways for these crops to feed so many, it's potentially precarious: If one of these crops were to fail – due to a heat wave or pest outbreak - the fallout could affect businesses, farmers and consumers everywhere.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the risk. One is to invest in ways to make these crops more resilient – for example, by breeding improved varieties that can better handle high temperatures, drought and pests. But this depends on a special 'banking' system; one that deals in seeds rather than money.
There are around 1,750 genebanks worldwide covering a wide range of crops. Their main aim is to conserve and share seeds. They enable scientists to search among the, for example, 150,000 types of rice or 140,000 types of wheat, to find the ones most suited to their breeding programs.
As well as developing crops that are more resilient to climate change, they also focus on other improvements, such as increasing nutritional quality of these crops, and yes, the milling quality too. In that sense, genebanks provide the basis for innovation by scientists, farmers and many businesses too.
Unfortunately, many genebanks are in developing countries and face daily funding shortfalls. If a genebank were to fail, we could lose thousands of years of agricultural history – and the raw materials for some of the innovations that will shape the future of food and agriculture.
The Crop Trust's endowment fund was set up in 2004 with the sole purpose of supporting genebanks. It gives permanent funding to the world's largest rice genebanks and provides financial lifelines to a number of others around the world.
It also supports the work of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic, the ultimate backup of crop diversity – and probably the 'coolest" insurance policy in the world.
We estimate that supporting the most important food and agriculture genebanks in the world will require US$850 million in the Crop Trust endowment fund. It might sound like a huge number, but a fraction of the marketing budgets of some companies in the food and agriculture sector. We're currently around one-third of the way to reaching our target.
It was great to share this news at the GRAPAS Conference in Cologne, Germany, recently – just up the road from the Crop Trust's headquarters in Bonn. What inspired me most was the interest of so many conference participants in the work of genebanks, and their desire to get involved to support them. After all, we all benefit from the hard work of genebanks, and playing a role in support their futures will make ours brighter too.