Posted February 1998
SPECIAL: BIODIVERSITY FOR FOOD AND AGRICULTURE
Conservation and Use of Plant Genetic Resources
The two basic approaches to conservation are in situ and ex situ methods.
In situ refers to maintaining plants and animals in their original habitat,
most notably in farmers' fields (also known as on-farm conservation). Ex
situ conservation refers to maintaining organisms outside their original
habitats in facilities such as genebanks, field genebanks or botanical gardens.
|This Special is an extract from "Human Nature: Agricultural Biodiversity and Farm-based
Food Security" by Hope Shand, an independent study prepared by the Rural Advancement
Foundation International (RAFI) for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the
United Nations (December 1997). The full publication is available in Portable Document Format (PDF)|
Experience shows that diversity is only secure when diverse conservation
strategies are employed. Ex situ and in situ approaches are not mutually
exclusive; no single method of conservation is optimal for all situations,
and no single method can succeed alone. Different conservation systems can
complement each other and provide insurance against the shortcomings of
any one method. Ultimately, the success of both in situ and ex situ approaches
depends on forging strong links between the two. In practical terms this
means conservation and utilization using both institutional scientific innovation
and the community genius of farmers and indigneous peoples.
Background: ex situ conservation of PGR
In response to the alarming pace of crop genetic erosion, particularly in
the South's centres of diversity, FAO, Consultative Group on International
Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and various national governments initiated
global plant genetic conservation efforts in the early 1970s. Collecting
missions were launched to Southern centres of diversity, and gene banks
were constructed and expanded for safeguarding collected germplasm. To date,
the storage of seeds in gene banks has been the standard approach to plant
genetic resource conservation. The vast majority of attention, funds and
scientific expertise has been devoted to ex situ collections, focusing particularly
on major crop species.
Where is collected germplasm and who controls it?
The majority of ex situ plant germplasm is currently located in Northern
institutions or is being conserved in gene banks developed and maintained
by the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) of the CGIAR.
The IARC gene banks are located primarily in the South but their funding
and guidance comes primarily from Northern donors. The objective of the
agreed undertaking between the CGIAR centres and FAO with respect to these
collections is to ensure that all germplasm samples are stored in duplicate
and that they are freely accessible.
The IARCs hold over 600,000 seed samples in their genebanks which, according
to some estimates, amount to between 20% and 50% of all unique germplasm
in storage worldwide . Because these gene banks contain "inventoried"
germplasm, their collections are considered among the most valuable genetic
materials simply because they are more readily identifiable and accessible
to institutional plant breeders than farmer's varieties or "wild"
crop relatives. The IARCs have been used principally for agricultural research
in Asia, Africa and Latin America. But the North also benefits enormously
from the agricultural genetic material they contain. The Rural Advancement
Foundation International estimates that farm-gate prices in Europe, North
America, Australia and New Zealand have risen by up to $5,000 million per
annum, thanks to seed improvements based on genetic material from 12 IARC
gene banks .
Nobody disputes the fact that the vast majority of crop germplasm in storage
was collected from the fields and forests of the South's farming communities.
But to whom that treasure ultimately belongs, and to whom a genebank is
accountable, has been the subject of enormous controversy and debate. The
Biodiversity Convention explicitly excludes all ex situ genebank collections
from its scope (Article 15, paragraph 3). This means that all ex situ collections
found outside the country of origin that were acquired before the Convention
entered into force are not subject to national sovereignty, nor provisions
for prior informed consent or sharing of benefits.
In October, 1994, the CGIAR and FAO signed an agreement that places the
gene bank material from 12 IARC's under the auspices of FAO, to be held
"in trust" for the world community. This agreement is an important
first step in a process to achieve full intergovernmental responsibility
over some of the world's most important seed stocks. Other crucial issues
on ex situ germplasm must be addressed: Who controls samples of the South's
germplasm held in the North? Who owns the myriad of accessions collected
by CGIAR that have since been passed on to other gene banks for storage?
How can the genetic material in gene banks continue to be made available
without restriction, especially in a global environment where genetic resources
are being privatized, and where virtually all biological materials are subject
to monopoly control under intellectual property regimes? How can farmers
and farming communities be adequately compensated for the creation and management
of genetic resources?
There are three major forms of ex situ conservation:
- Seed genebanks provide a controlled environment where seeds can
be dried to low moisture content and stored at low temperature without losing
their viability. Approximately 90% of all "ex situ" accessions
are stored as seeds.
- Field genebanks such as arboreta, plantations and botanical gardens
are useful for species that are difficult or impossible to store as seed,
including vegetatively propagated crops and tree species. Field genebanks
account for approximately 8% of all accessions in "ex situ" storage.
- In vitro methods conserve plant parts, tissue or cells in a nutrient
medium. This method is used to conserve species that do not readily produce
seeds, or where the seeds cannot be dried without damaging them. Only 1%
of all accessions are held "in vitro".
The ex situ experience: preserving much, using little, and losing a
Ex situ collections of PGR are an essential foundation of global food security
and sustainable agriculture. But more than a quarter century of practical
experience with gene bank collections reveals a striking and disturbing
paradox: The conventional (ex situ) approach to conservation of plant genetic
resources has resulted in preserving much, using little, and losing a great
deal. Plant genetic resources are under-conserved and under-utilized .
RAFI and many other NGOs point out that because ex situ germplasm is removed
from its cultural and environmental context, these collections of crop genes
have become largely inaccessible to those who have the greatest need for
them - farming communities in the South - the donors and original innovators
of much of the germplasm stored in gene banks.
FAO's 1996 State of the World Report on PGRFA provides the first comprehensive
analysis of ex situ conservation worldwide. It finds that more than six
million accessions are now stored in over 1300 genebanks around the world.
But the numbers are deceiving. Physical infrastructure does not guarantee
safe or secure storage. Problems with equipment, maintenance and funding
are rampant. Many genebanks consist of nothing more than a single refrigerator
operating on an unreliable power supply; many have problems with seed-drying
prior to storage. A closer look reveals that the number of facilities offering
secure storage for long-term conservation amounts to a handful of banks
concentrated in just a dozen countries :
- Of 1300 national and regional germplasm collections, 397 are suitable
for medium-to long-term storage (measured by internationally-accepted criteria).
- Only 35 countries operate long-term seed storage facilities.
- Approximatlely 45% of all accessions held in national collections are
found in 12 countries (Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Japan,
Korean Republic, Russia, Ukraine, UK, USA).
- Worldwide, the number of unique accessions is estimated to be one to
What's in the banks?
Over 40% of all accessions in genebanks are cereals . Food legumes constitute
about 15% of global ex situ collections. By and large, minor and subsistence
crops, farmer's varieties (landraces) and their wild relatives are poorly
represented. While cereals clearly play a dominant role in food security
worldwide, the disproportionate share held in gene banks also reflects the
fact that they are the species most important for agricultural trade and
Northern agriculture. In reality, poor people are less dependent on major
Many of the plant species most vital to subsistence farmers and the household
food security of millions of poor people in the South, including non-domesticated
species, are grossly under-represented in genebank collections. Wheat, for
example, accounts for 14% of total ex situ collections, while cassava, a
major poor people's crop, accounts for only 0.5%. Vegetables, roots and
tubers, fruits and forages each account for less than 10% of global collections.
There are only about 11,500 accessions of all species of yams (0.18% of
total accessions) and still fewer bananas and plantains (10,500 accessions)
For half of all accessions in national genebank collections no information
is available about the type of material stored (whether the sample is a
farmer's variety [landrace], wild crop relative, or cultivar developed by
institutional breeders). Where this information is available, FAO's database
reveals that 48% of all accessions are cultivars or breeding lines, 36%
are farmers' varieties (landraces), and only 15% are non-domesticated plants
or crop relatives .
Need for regeneration
Genebank storage is not indefinite. Seeds and tissues deteriorate with age.
Samples in storage must be grown into whole plants periodically (regenerated),
so that a fresh generation of seeds and tissues can be taken for continued
preservation. FAO finds that many seeds are stored under inadequate conditions,
and "an alarmingly high number" of stored accessions is in need
of regeneration . Worldwide, almost half (48%) of all stored seeds need
to be regenerated. (Only Japan, Ethiopia and Poland report less than 10%
of total genebanks accessions in need of regeneration) . As a result,
some gene banks could be storing more dead than alive seed. Nobody knows
how much genetic material has already been lost, but seed experts have long
speculated that genetic erosion in genebanks exceeds that in farmers' fields.
Even the most technologically sophisticated gene banks cannot always provide
adequate security. A review of the US National Plant Germplasm System between
1979-1989 found that 29% of the accessions in its national genebank had
germination rates that were either unknown (21%) or less than 65% (8%) .
One of the world's largest genebanks, the Vavilov Research Institute of
Plant Industry in Russia, lacks long-term storage facilities and must regenerate
its entire collection every few years .
Lack of characterization and documentation
The germplasm held in many gene banks is largely unknown and undocumented.
Without basic "passport," characterization and evaluation data,
stored seeds are virtually useless to farmers and institutional breeders.
Passport data refers to the accessions' sampling date and site of origin;
characterization data refers to taxonomic information that describes the
stored variety; evaluation data refers to agronomic properties of the accession.
FAO's State of the World Report concludes that documentation of ex situ
collections is inadequate; 55 countries report the need for improvement.
Passport data is available for some 37% of the accessions held in national
collections, and most accessions held in CGIAR genebanks . However,
the amount of information is minimal, sometimes only providing country of
origin. Ethnobotanical information on the history and local uses of germplasm
is rarely included .
"Safety duplication" refers to the need for duplicate samples
of unique germplasm accessions to be held in more than one genebank as a
form of insurance against loss. There are two problems associated with duplication:
Despite the hard work and dedication of the scientists involved, large collections
of germplasm are being lost due to technical and financial shortcomings,
or natural disasters. Power failures, inadequate documentation and evaluation,
or failure to regenerate plants can result in massive losses of stored collections.
Earthquakes, flood, and war also put genebank collections at risk.
- Many countries reporting to FAO state that their genebank collections
are only partially duplicated; others report no duplication. Only 11 countries
(accounting for a total of 430,000 accessions) reported that their collections
were fully duplicated.
- Many samples held in genebanks are either unknown or over-duplicated
- a wasteful and expensive practice. A 1987 study of 2.5 million accessions
worldwide concluded that 35% of the stored accessions for 37 crops were
distinct, while the rest were duplicates . More recent information is
not available, but FAO concludes that, "it must be assumed that inadvertent
duplication is now even higher" .
Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of gene banks is the fact that, once stored,
seeds are removed from the evolutionary process that a species undergoes
in its natural environment. There is no pressure to adapt to changing natural
conditions, nor to compete with other species. In addition, germplasm that
only exists in gene banks is detached from its social and cultural context.
The farmers who grow traditional crop varieties are not only custodians
of diversity, but also carriers of knowledge which may be equally valuable
in identifying and using genetic resources . Unfortunately, FAO concludes
that in the rush to deposit farmers' seed in gene banks, the people and
farming systems that generated and maintained the diversity being collected
and stored were "scarcely appreciated and rarely considered important
to conservation" .
Sustainable conservation strategies: linking ex situ and in situ and
bridging the gap between institutional and community systems
Today, there is growing appreciation for the fact that in situ conservation
is a crucial element in the conservation of agricultural biodiversity and
must be complementary to gene bank collections. The future of world food
security depends not just on stored crop genes, but on the people who use
and maintain diversity on a daily basis. After decades of neglect in official
circles, the CBD, Agenda 21 and FAO's Global Plan of Action aim to redress
this imbalance by placing greater emphasis on in situ and farmer/community
level management of genetic resources. The Global Plan recognizes the need
for complementary conservation systems and aims to secure existing ex situ
collections while strengthening in situ conservation and the capacity of
Largely due to the work of NGOs, the great untapped potential of on-farm
seed conservation and plant breeding has been recognized internationally.
NGOs have spearheaded community-level conservation efforts. In 1991, the
Keystone Dialogue on PGR affirmed the significant contribution of community
level efforts in improving, conserving and using PGR. Keystone's final report
estimated that the dollar value of NGO programmes to stimulate and facilitate
on-farm conservation in at least 35 countries exceeded $7 million per annum
. It recommended that this work be recognized, rewarded and strengthened.
The Biodiversity Institute of Ethiopia was the first national gene bank
to provide an active role for farmers in genetic resource conservation.
Since 1988 it has supported an innovative native seed conservation and utilization
programme involving farmers, scientists and extension workers. With support
from USC Canada and a consortium of NGOs, the African "Seeds of Survival
Programme" has enabled scientists and local farmers to work together
to restore, develop and re-introduce traditional Ethiopian crop varieties
that were endangered by drought and war. The Programme is now being replicated
in other African countries.
NGOs have pointed out that the "formal" world of research institutes,
gene banks and plant breeders has sometimes worked against "informal"
farmer-based systems, thus effectively limiting the capacity of both to
operate. In January, 1993 a group of governmental and non-governmental organizations
from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe launched the Community Biodiversity
Development and Conservation Programme, a long-term initiative to strengthen
local level genetic resources management. The programme's main focus is
on in situ and on-farm conservation. The objectives of the 4-year programme,
involving 15 partner organizations worldwide, are:
Farmers can and do conserve, effectively use and improve plant genetic resources.
This approach must be supported - not impeded - by the institutional plant
breeding or ex situ conservation system. Ultimately, it is vital that the
link be strengthened between on-farm conservation and development. Future
efforts to protect and conserve agricultural biodiversity must move from
ex situ conservation to on-farm management of genetic resources.
- To provide direct support in strengthening community innovation systems;
- To investigate and assess selected community innovation systems related
to the conservation and use of PGR; and
- To recommend ways in which the institutional system can better support
and/or implement community innovation systems .
Where's the political debate?
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR),
established in 1971, is an informal association of public and private donors
that supports a network of 16 international agricultural research centres
(IARCs), each of which has its own governing body. The CGIAR Secretariat
is housed in the World Bank (Washington, D.C.) and the Group's major donors
include the World Bank, Japan, USA and The European Union. The CGIAR annual
budget is about US$300 million. Currently, the CGIAR comprises 53 members,
six of which are from the South. In 1996, the Group initiated an External
System Review (The Third Review) which is currently underway. NGOs (including
RAFI)have long been critical of the lack of intergovernmental control over
the CGIAR's genebanks, and lobbied to establish the 1994 agreement between
FAO and CGIAR which placed the germplasm in 12 IARC genebanks under the
auspices of FAO. In addition, NGOs believe that farmers and scientists from
the South to date have been severely under-represented in the governance
of the CG. NGOs welcome the current NARS initiatives, strongly supported
by IFAD and FAO, to rectify this situation and to become more actively involved
in prioritising and implementing the CGIAR research agenda. The recent increases
in developing country membership of the Technical Advisory Committee and
in the IARC Boards of Governance is encouraging in this context.
International Plant Genetic Research Institute (IPGRI) is the CG
institute with direct system-wide responsibility for germplasm. IPGRI has
been one of the most constructive and progressive IARCs. They have worked
closely with civil society organizations and other UN agencies on both technical
and policy matters related to conservation and utilization of agricultural
biodiversity. IPGRI, in close collaboration with FAO, plays a critical role
in genetic resources conservation and in linking conservation and biodiversity
to poverty alleviation and protection of the environment towards sustainable
1. FAO. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,
Rome, 1996, p. 185.
2. RAFI Occasional Paper Series, "Declaring the Benefits," Vol.
1, No. 3, October, 1994.
3. Draft Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization
of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, 1996, Rome, p. 4.
4. All of the following examples are taken from FAO, State of the World's
Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Rome, 1996, pp. 65-70.
5. All of the following information on types of collections comes from FAO,
State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Rome,
1996, p. 59-62.
6. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,
7. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,,
8. Draft Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization
of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
9. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,
10. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,
11. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,
12. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,
13. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,
14. Cited in State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,
15. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,
16. Berg, Trygve, DRAFT.
17. Draft Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization
of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
18. Keystone International Dialogue Series on Plant Genetic Resources, Final
Consensus Report: Global Initiative for the Security and Sustainable Use
of Plant Genetic Resources, 31 May-4 June, 1991.
19. Montecinos, C., "Bringing Farmer and Non-Farmer Breeders Together,"
Seedling, Vol. 11, No. 4 (1994), pp. 13-15.