Preserving genetic resources is important for keeping crops safe and ensuring global food supplies. For that, genebanks and food security groups have created a world wide web of
support, aiming to lend a hand to those facing crises such as natural disasters or war. Having a wide range of plant varieties can also be essential in meeting the challenges of global climate change.
One example is what took place after tropical cyclone Winston ripped through the south Pacific in February this year, leaving a wide trail of destruction. One of the worst storms ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, winds reached 230 kms an hour at peak. Photos taken after the storm show flattened buildings and toppled over trees. Another casualty: fields of sweetpotato, a widely grown crop in many parts of the south Pacific.
The genebank at the Centre for Pacific Crops and Trees, or CePaCT in Fiji, run by Pacific Community’s (SPC) Land Resources Division, helps preserve diversity in such staple crops as sweetpotato, taro, yam, and banana. The center also distributes plant materials for growers in the region. The cyclone however meant they weren’t in any position to quickly multiply up their sweetpotato stocks.
The head of CIP’s genebank, Dr. David Ellis, got in contact with Valerie Saena Tuia, Coordinator of the Genetic Resources facility (CePaCT) at SPC, in Fiji. Would they need some help with getting hard-hit farmers back on their feet?
That led to the request to send different varieties of sweetpotato to the Pacific island nation. Genetic materials sent across international borders need to be certified as disease-free, so the scientists at CIP prepared 420 test tubes with plants in each one. That material will be multiplied in Fiji, saving months of growing time and allowing for a much quicker recovery for its agricultural sector.
“The genebank community is family-network and we wanted to know what we could do to help. Genebanks work very closely with each other,” Dr. Ellis said.
“It was an effort from Peru to get material to Fiji so they can get a head start on bulking it up and farmers can start planting as soon as possible. They have five times the material to start with than they would have had otherwise,” he said, adding that the sharing of resources “is part of our mandate.”
Sweetpotato cultivation, the seventh biggest food crop for humans, is widespread in the Pacific Islands. It is believed to have been first domesticated more than 5,000 years ago in Latin America and made its way around the world, also becoming important in Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and many other regions.
“The sharing of plant genetic resources and collaboration among centres such as CIP and CePaCT are very important for supporting small Pacific Island nations in their efforts to reduce their vulnerability to disaster risks as well as adapt to the impacts of climate change and this is clearly demonstrated with the recent collaboration for provision of sweet potato varieties,” Pacific Community Deputy Director-General, Dr Audrey Aumua said.
The sweetpotato varieties provided by the CIP genebank will help farmers on Fiji and those in other countries affected by the cyclone such as Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands.
“Sweetpotato is a crop that grows very quickly and is a good disaster relief crop that can be planted straight after any cyclones to ensure communities can harvest some food early during the post cyclone period,” CePaCT Coordinator, Valerie Tuia said.
CIP and others have long known that sweetpotato is a resilient crop that can help reduce the risks that climate vulnerable areas of the world face. In November at the Global Landscapes Forum held in Marrakesh alongside the UN climate change negotiations known as COP22, CIP launched a disaster risk and recovery initiative known as the Climate Resilience through Sweetpotato (CReSP). CReSP connects the climate resilient and nutritious sweetpotato technologies with diverse partnerships for delivery. This initiative already has traction in Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique and Bangladesh.
CIP is the global custodian of thousands of accessions of tubers, such as potatoes and root crops, such as sweetpotato. It is one of the largest sweetpotato collections in the world, with a huge amount of diversity. The center also backs up its own genetic materials, growing out its accessions in Lima and in other parts of Peru, and saving duplicate seeds in Colombia and Brazil.
CIP’s aid to Fiji is just one example of the global cooperation among genebanks and other organizations that work together to promote food sustainability and safety. There are more than 1,700 genebanks in the world, of varying sizes.
Another recent example of the global network in action is the response to the problems that inflicted the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, or ICARDA that worked for years out of Aleppo in Syria. The facility focused on the needs of agriculture in drylands in developing nations, for crops such as wheat, barley and peas. That all changed with the war in Syria. The center was able to continue functioning for a time, but then the strife made replenishing seed stocks impossible. Its activities were moved to other sites, with temporary headquarters ending up in Lebanon. ICARDA had already started to ship genetic resources from Aleppo to the back-up global seed vault located at Svalbard in the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen, which contains the world’s largest collection of food crop seeds. The fail-safe seed bank at Svalbard was set up to deal with anything that could lead to the loss of crop varieties, be it wars and natural disasters, or a lack of funding and poor management at a genebank.
By September last year, ICARDA requested that part of its genetic material that had been sent to Svalbard be repatriated to help multiply collections in Morocco and Lebanon and to meet requests for germplasm from farmers and organizations. A total of 57 boxes with things like beans and wild relatives of cereals and pulses were sent to Lebanon, and 71 boxes with things like lentil and cultivated wheat went to Morocco. Duplicate seeds will be returned to the seed bank in Svalbard.
“Those exact varieties that were being kept in collections in Aleppo are now being grown out and will be able to be distributed globally again to help food security,” Dr. Ellis said.