Environment Conventions and agreements

Posted February 1998


Conservation and Use of Plant Genetic Resources

Introduction Crops Plants Animals Forests Fish Soil


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)
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.

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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:

The ex situ experience: preserving much, using little, and losing a great deal

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 [3]. 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 [4]:

What's in the banks?

Over 40% of all accessions in genebanks are cereals [5]. 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 crop commodities.

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) [6].

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 [7].

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 [8]. 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) [9]. 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%) [10]. 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 [11].

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 [12]. 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 [13].

Duplication dilemma

"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:
  1. 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.

  2. 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 [14]. More recent information is not available, but FAO concludes that, "it must be assumed that inadvertent duplication is now even higher" [15].
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.

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 [16]. 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" [17].

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 farming communities.

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 [18]. 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:

  1. To provide direct support in strengthening community innovation systems;
  2. To investigate and assess selected community innovation systems related to the conservation and use of PGR; and
  3. To recommend ways in which the institutional system can better support and/or implement community innovation systems [19].
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.

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 food security.


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, p. 60.
7. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,, p. 62.
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, p. 78.
10. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, p. 75.
11. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, p. 78.
12. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, p. 79.
13. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, p. 81.
14. Cited in State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, p. 74.
15. State of the World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, p. 74.
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.

Introduction Crops Plants Animals Forests Fish Soil

Back to Top FAO Homepage