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PHOTO ESSAY: Preserving global crop diversity

Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 31 Jan 2013 14:58 GMT
Author: Global Crop Diversity Trust
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A new agreement between the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the CGIAR Consortium provides $109 million over five years for the CGIAR Research Program for Managing and Sustaining Crop Collections.

The money - with nearly 90 percent coming from the CGIAR Fund - will maintain and expand the collections of 706,000 samples of crop, forage and agroforestry resources managed by the genebanks at 11 CGIAR research centres around the world. These seed banks protect existing varieties and help plant breeders develop new varieties resistant to climate change and other threats.

This photo essay provides a glimpse of some of the advances made by the scientists who work at the seed banks towards achieving global food security. It shines a spotlight on less well-researched crops, some of which are particularly tolerant to climate extremes and may become more widely cultivated as climate change affects yields of traditional staples.


130,000 accessions (plant samples, strains or populations held in a genebank or breeding programme for conservation or use) at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines and AfricaRice in Benin

(Credit: IRRI)

The single most important crop in the world, this cereal - in all of its forms and colors - supplies half the world with 80 percent of its dietary intake. Rice’s many varieties thrive in diverse conditions - from rainforests to deserts. In 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami inundated rice-growing regions in Asia with salty seawater, damaging the rice varieties under cultivation. For years, IRRI researchers had been working to improve the salt tolerance of rice. They had screened thousands of traditional cultivars conserved in the genebank and used the most salt-tolerant to develop improved varieties that combined good salt tolerance with high yield. They took these to test in Sri Lanka, and the local agriculture was able to continue unabated. IRRI’s genebank also was central in helping Cambodia rebuild its rice production, destroyed by the wars of the 1970s. Today, the country is one of the world’s top rice producers.


1,500 accessions of banana and plantain by Bioversity International in Belgium and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria

(Credit: A. Vezina - Bioversity International)

Because most varieties of these fruits - a staple across the developing world - produce no (or very few) seeds, they must be preserved as live plants, as small plantlets grown in sterile containers (in vitro) in the lab, or as tiny cuttings in liquid nitrogen (cryoconservation). The international in vitro collection managed by Bioversity International provides safety backup for vulnerable national collections of live plants, and also allows distribution of material that is free of pathogens. The collection at IITA is actively used by one of the few banana breeding programs in the world - few seeds also means that breeding is complicated and expensive. Banana production has been devastated by pests and diseases in the past, and, difficult or not, breeding is an important way to prevent that from happening again.


40,000 accessions at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia

(Credit: Neil Palmer - CIAT)

The genebank at CIAT holds beans from 110 countries - the largest collection of this ancient protein source in the world. Most of the samples are of cultivated species, but CIAT is working to expand its stock of wild varieties as well. In 1987, as part of their efforts to collect all known bean species, CIAT scientists came across a little-known bean high in the Peruvian Andes. Their initial hope was just to save it from extinction, but it turned out to have a high iron content, and it was used to develop more nutritious varieties for rural communities in Central Africa. Farmers in Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, who began using the variety in 2012, have also profited from the bean’s high yields and disease resistance.


3,000 accessions at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria

(Credit: Neil Palmer - CIAT)

Invaluable for resilience and its durability - the roots can be stored in the ground for 24 to 36 months before being harvested and eaten - cassava is crucial to the food security of some half-a-billion people. In the 1970s, CIAT and IITA launched breeding programmes to seek out cassava varieties resistant to drought and pests; today, this crop is valued for its resistance to the harshest impacts of climate change.


28,000 accessions at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria

(Credit: Xochiquetzal Fonseca - CIMMYT)

This major staple feeds more than one billion people and is grown almost everywhere around the world. Known as corn in the US, Canada and Australia, it’s eaten as polenta in Italy, tortillas in Mexico, canchita in Peru, and ugali in Kenya. Maize, however, is low in Vitamin A, which leads to visual impairments and even blindness among poor people with maize-centric diets. To solve this problem, researchers are dipping into the seed bank maintained at CIMMYT to identify and improve varieties richer in this essential nutrient.


3,700 accessions at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Kenya

(Credit: Charlie Pye-Smith)

This collection of fruit trees, representing more than 190 species from 45 countries, is part of ICRAF’s overall efforts to introduce more fruit trees, including from other parts of the world, to farmers across Africa. The domestication of these fruit trees and their introduction to local markets could help improve the region’s diet. The baobab tree, for example, is the source of a popular vitamin C-rich fruit juice, and its leaves are widely used as a vegetable, while the marula produces a fruit used to make not just juice, but also jam, beer and a liqueur. Such trees are becoming more popular with farmers across the African continent, increasing the demand for varieties that can grow in diverse conditions.


16,000 accessions at the International Potato Center (CIP) in Peru

(Credit: Asociacion ANDES)

The genebank at CIP is thought to hold more than 80 percent of the world’s native potato and sweet potato cultivars, as well as more than 80 percent of known wild potato species. First domesticated by farmers over 7,000 years ago in the Andes, potatoes are now grown in more than 170 countries and are considered the world’s most important non-cereal crop. The genebank at CIP also conserves a variety of other root and tuber crops, less well known around the world than potatoes. Durable in the face of drought, freezing temperatures and harsh sunlight, these vegetables - from Achira to Yachon - are essential to the diets of indigenous communities. Researchers from around the world study CIP’s genebank to discover varieties best attuned to specific climates and soil conditions.


165,000 accessions at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria (currently relocated to other offices in the region)

(Credit: CIMMYT)

Wheat is the second most widely produced crop globally. It is grown as far north as Norway, as far south as Argentina and serves as the basis of meals for billions of people. In the 1970s, Norman Borlaug worked at CIMMYT’s then-new genebank to develop high-yielding varieties of wheat that spawned the Green Revolution in Mexico, and the plains of the Indus and Ganges. He is credited with saving more lives than any other person in history. To pay tribute to his accomplishment, scientists at ICARDA and CIMMYT founded the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative to develop wheat varieties resistant to the deadly, rapidly mutating wheat fungi known as rusts. A major outbreak of stem rust or yellow rust could cause severe crop losses globally. The only way researchers can win the race against such an outbreak is to search among the thousands of varieties held in genebanks for material to help them breed new varieties that can withstand the threat.


33,000 accessions at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in India and the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria (currently relocated to other offices in the region)

(Credit: ICRISAT)

Also known as garbanzos, this nutritious dry legume originated in the Fertile Crescent, and has been farmed in the Middle East for thousands of years, part of the package of crops that launched the Neolithic Revolution. Packed with protein, the chickpea is also a staple throughout Southeast Asia, India and the Mediterranean. Recently, it has become popular in parts of Africa and Latin America. Because the crop has yet to realize its full yield potential, breeders are relying on genebanks to find varieties - such as those resistant to cold shocks - that yield more protein-packed pods per plant.


16,000 cowpea accessions at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria

(Credit: IITA)

High in value and nutrition, this legume feeds livestock and humans alike, mainly in Africa and Asia but also in the Americas - it is known as the black-eyed pea in the southern US. Poor farmers in Africa, where the crop originated, plant cowpeas with other crops to enrich the soil. It releases nitrogen, the same element that expensive fertilizers provide. For this reason, the cowpea thrives in sandy soils and other hostile conditions. To protect the crop from disease and pests, including pod-sucking bugs, IITA used strains found in genebanks to develop resistant, high-yielding, short season varieties. Today, these improved varieties are used in 60 countries.


46,000 accessions at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) genebanks in India and Africa

(Credit: Neil Palmer - CIAT)

This is a major cereal in Africa, where the crop was born, and on the Indian subcontinent. It is also grown as a livestock feed and biofuel in other parts of the world. This so-called “camel of crops” is prized by farmers battling climate change for its resistance to long dry periods. Researchers at ICRISAT have collected and conserved a huge diversity of sorghum varieties - in particular from its African cradle. The fruits of this effort have already paid off - more than 30 varieties derived from the samples found in the genebank have been released in 17 countries. This includes a strain from Ethiopia that was used to create varieties for Burundi and Burkina Faso that feature excellent grain quality and high yields, and that are resistant to a number of important diseases.


33,000 accessions at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) genebanks in India and Africa

(Credit: Neil Palmer - CIAT)

The go-to crop for many of the world’s poorest farmers in the world’s driest regions, this high-protein grain originated in Africa and is still used widely across the continent for its resistance to high heat and low water. Since the 1980s, a high-yielding variety used by many farmers in India has suffered from downy mildew, a close relative to the disease that contributed to the Irish potato famine. Some farmers in Rajasthan continue to lose 30 percent of their pearl millet yields when outbreaks hit. Breeders, however, have used samples conserved in ICRISAT’s genebanks to develop varieties that can withstand the onslaught of this pathogen.

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