Monday, March 30, 2009

Global Seed Vault- A Step Towards Biodiversity Conservation

This blog is posted as a sequel to the article of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan entitled “Frozen Seed and Food Security” published in “The Hindu”, dated March 12, 2009.
Human interventions with environment have induced change in the climatic conditions which is leading to global warming and also posing various climatic constraints and crop failures. To deal with these environmental issues we need to prepare a contingency plan, in advance so as to solve various food security problems which are likely to arise in near future.
As seed is the most vital entity of crop production program, securing enough seeds for long term use without loosing its viability is a challenge for us. Though farm saved seeds serve an important tool for tapping the genetic diversity and also organised conservation is undertaken by the government, international and national research institutes, by establishing gene banks and gene sanctuaries and diverse crops, species and varieties are conserved in it. But we need a backup support in cases of accidental loss of diversity in traditional gene banks which may arise due to mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts and natural disasters, destroyed by war and civil strife. Recent devastation of 11,827 hectares of cropped area leading to great loss of biodiversity in India due to Tsunami (Krishnamoorthy et. al, 2005). The UN’s latest report, titled ‘The Humanitarian Implications of Climate Change’, identifies India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia as global warming hotspot nations that are particularly vulnerable to an increase in extreme natural disasters. India will be vulnerable to extreme drought, floods and cyclones in the coming decades, says the latest United Nations report that examines possible consequences of global warming within the next 20-30 years. There arises a need for a strategic approach to cope up with irreversible losses due to these natural disasters.
As a part of this backup approach, an innovative gene bank has been devised, “The Global Seed Vault” in which the representative samples or duplicate samples of the genetic material that has been already stored in various gene banks, have been conserved. It is owned by Norwegian Government, but managed jointly by the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture, The Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre. This seed bank is located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near the town of Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago. It is constructed 120 metres (390 ft) inside a sandstone mountain leading to three vaults, the bank has a capacity to enable storing all existing diversity and also which is likely to arise in future. The climatic conditions of Spitsbergen such as permafrost condition and lack of tectonic activity also favor seed preservation.
Twenty-one gene banks contributed to the first deposit of seeds into the Seed Vault in January-February 2008. These gene banks included international gene banks of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), other international and regional gene banks, national gene banks, and a non-governmental organization (NGO). Primary funding of the trust came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, Switzerland, and Sweden, though funding has been received from a wide variety of sources including four developing countries i.e. Brazil, Colombia, Ethiopia, and India.
On 25th February 2008, at the creation of the Global Seed Vault, FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf commented that it is “one of the most innovative and impressive acts in the service of humanity”. “The wealth that is being safeguarded in Svalbard will be the global insurance to address future challenges,” he added. Dr Diouf addressed a conference in Svalbard held in connection with the inauguration of the Seed Vault. FAO’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture the treaty, an international legal framework for conserving and accessing crop diversity, has now been ratified by 116 countries. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, hosted by FAO, also provides operating funds for the seed vault.
Once the need for long term conservation of existing genotypes has been recognized, efforts are required to meet the global food demands and these genotypes can be employed for crop improvement programs. Major biotechnological and conventional breeding techniques employ genes, which come from the genetic base available and if this base will not be there, research and development activities will be hampered. Therefore, obsolete varieties and land races should also be conserved because they can serve as a potential source of various genes for example, genes for quality, biotic and abiotic resistance and yield contributing traits and adaptability. Gene transfers can be done to improve the popular varieties lacking in these traits. In the selection process for development and promotion of high yielding varieties precious genes are lost. We need new genes against new strains and races of pathogen. The possible threats from recently identified Ug 99 strain of wheat rust from Uganda affecting wheat crop in many countries of Asia could lead to decelerating levels of food security.
Many Non Government Organizations (NGO’s) and civil societies, are voicing concerns about the security of conserved material and possible use by the developed countries or companies in commercial activities of seeds. It is essential to develop suitable security measures and systematize so that seeds stored in the Seed Vault remain the property of the depositing country or institution. It is emphasized that no change of ownership, for, any seeds accepted for storage at the Vault is there and material stored is freely available under the terms of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. In the present system this safeguard is being done by storing seeds in closed boxes, same as the locker system in banks called as the “Black Box” system and remain inaccessible to anyone else.
India is very rich in genetic diversity in terms of both flora and fauna. In compliance with the WTO, TRIPS agreement, Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Right Act has been designed which allows the protection of plant varieties, hybrids and transgenic varieties. Currently seeds of varieties are being conserved at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), New Delhi, though a well established system. But in the long run we need several more of such seed banks to ensure easy access to the protected material for research and development purposes and also serve as a backup plan. These facilities should be accessible to all including researchers, farmers and all others in rural livelihoods.
Based on the concept of Norwegian seed vault, there is need to establish seed banks for our biodiversity, and meristem banks in case of asexually propagating species. Several rare medicinal and aromatic plants, which are of great importance can not be stored as seed due to lack of viability and poor seed set, meristem banks serve the purpose. In the changing patterns of climate and so, there is continuous threat for possible extinction of rare species. Dr. M.S. Swaminathan also suggested for the establishment of a “Conservation Consortium” in India, in his article published in “The Hindu” recently.
Adoption of such technologies in an organized manner in India can prove to be a boon for agricultural sector. Though establishment of seed vault has paved the way for plant conservation but we are yet to follow the path and develop infrastructure for the same, this would require a specialized skill set and trained professionals and would also be one of the major contributions for the development of agriculture, finally of the country.

Reference: Krishnamoorthy; K., Harichandrakumar; K. T., Krishna Kumari; A. and P. K. Das (2005). Years of Life Lost and Productivity Loss due to Tsunami in India. Current Science.89: 5-10.

1 comment:

Ruchica Goyal said...

Thanks a lot Anuradha. It was a good learning experience.