When plant breeders want to improve crops, they turn to the diversity stored in gene banks around the world. But many of these critical storehouses, which hold seeds and other plant tissues, are in poor condition as a result of funding shortages. Now, the Crop Trust, a nonprofit based in Bonn, Germany, is aiming to help crop gene banks find firmer footing by providing a steadier source of cash. And today it announced its first award, a 5-year, renewable grant of $1.4 million annually, to the gene bank of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines.
“These crop collections are too important to the world to be left to uncertainty,” says Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, which was founded in 2004. “They can’t depend on budgets that go up and down.”
The trust is best known for its work on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a storage facility dug into an Arctic mountain in Norway. It contains nearly 1 million samples of crop seeds gathered from gene banks over the world, kept in case disaster strikes. But the organization also has been quietly working to improve the ability of gene banks to conserve and distribute seeds, and helping the banks meet standards that qualify them for long-term funding from an endowment established by the trust.
After 6 years of effort, IRRI—a plant breeding center that has played a central role in developing modern, high-yield rice varieties—has now met those standards. For example, its gene bank can now make seeds from 90% of its 136,000 varieties available immediately on request. The new funding should make it easier for IRRI to sustain the sometimes labor-intensive process of maintaining its collections; for example, some crop varieties need to planted periodically, so that researchers can harvest fresh collections of viable seed.
The trust ultimately hopes to expand its financial help to IRRI’s sister institutes in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global nonprofit partnership for agriculture that has research centers throughout the developing world. CGIAR centers run 11 gene banks in all, and analysts estimate it will take an endowment of close to $500 million to generate the annual funds needed to ensure their long-term viability. (Safeguarding all crops stored in the world’s roughly 25 major gene banks would take an endowment of about $850 million.) So far, the Crop Trust has raised about $300 million for its seed bank endowment, with contributions mainly from the United States, Norway, and Germany. So, “We have some ways to go,” Haga says.
Given that rice is one of the world’s most important crops, researchers say supporting IRRI is an obvious priority. But it will also be important to help the gene banks that conserve less well-known crops, such as teff or quinoa that are important for food security, says Irene Hoffmann, secretary of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Rome. “There are many gene banks, especially the national ones, that don’t get enough attention, and many crops that are not as high in profile as rice or maize,” she says. Many banks lack the resources to prevent their seed collections from withering away, the commission noted in a report last year.
Haga hopes the Crop Trust will eventually be able to support national and regional gene banks as well as the prominent international centers. Fundraising for long-term seed conservation has gotten more difficult, she says, and it’s always been harder to raise funds for agricultural diversity than charismatic wild animals. “We need to protect all natural biodiversity,” she says, “but let’s not forget that plants actually feed us.”