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More precious than gold: Preserving bioversity at the genebank

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ICRISAT genebank

Germplasm collection”, “allele diversity”, “Crop registers”, might sound like mystic academic terms to you. Likewise for me, I could hardly link them into the discussion about climate change and food security…. Until I visited the genebank on the ICRISAT campus near Hyderabad in India.

The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) is a non-profit organization conducting agricultural research for development in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. ICRISAT is part of a consortium of similar agricultural research centers supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
…and they have a bank. Not to store money or gold, but to safeguard something much more precious: the genetic material – or “germplasm”- of 119,000 “accessions” -or varieties- of sorghum, pearl millet and six other types of small millets, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut, collected from 144 countries.

“Genetic diversity is key to the future”
Over thousands of years, different food crops have evolved into zillions of different varieties, either grown as a cultivated crop, or flourishing in the wild. Each variety differs from the next in the way it naturally adapted its genetic code to the environment it grows in: how it deals with drought or a high soil salinity, how it built up resistance to certain pests. Many differ in their yield, size, leaves or roots.

But, as Bob Dylan sung: “Times are a-changing”. Farmers now often concentrate on monocultures, or grow only a selection of high yielding crops. Commercial companies have been “successful” in promoting certain varieties, which farmers adopted quickly, and –thanks to globalization- were spread widely. Understandably so, as “the world needs to produce more food”. However, all of this became nefast for the bio-diversity: Today, the rate in which traditional seed varieties disappear, is higher than ever.
This stands in stark contrast with the demand for more and specialized seed varieties, adapted to the ever changing weather patterns. If the genetic biodiversity disappears, where will we find the seed varieties helping farmers to cope with future environmental changes?

Unless if we safeguard our existing seed varieties for the wide range of crops the world grows, we will no longer have the genetic material to re-generate seeds adapted to the future climate changes.

And that is where genebanks come in. Genebanks like the one I was standing in this morning, at ICRISAT.

ICRISAT’s genebank: saving our past, for our future.

In two large earthquake proof and environment controlled “vaults”, ICRISAT’s genebank is safeguarding the bioversity of sorghum, millet, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut. These crops might not be staple food such as wheat, maize or rice, but they are just as essential to a balance diet of the world’s ever growing population, particularly for the poorest of the poor in the semi-arid tropics.

It is a common misunderstanding that malnutrition is only caused by the lack of SUFFICIENT food to eat. More often than not, malnutrition is caused by a lack of THE RIGHT food, containing all nutrients, like proteins and vitamins which make a balanced diet.

Take the case of chickpeas: did you know that chickpeas make up for more than 20 percent of world pulse production? Did you know that chickpeas contain 25% proteins, the maximum provided by any pulse? While in the developed world, the protein intake comes mostly from fish or meat, in the majority of the developing countries this is not the case: Fish or meat is a luxury commodity, and people have to resort to pulses like chickpeas for their daily protein intake. That makes chickpeas an important crop in the global fight against hunger.

To safeguard the variety of commodities like chickpeas, allowing researchers to re-create old varieties or generate new varieties, adapted to the ever changing climate, the genetic material needs to be saved. And that is the role of a genebank.

Over the past thirty years, the ICRISAT genebank collected and stored over 20,000 different varieties of chickpeas, collected from 60 countries, making it the largest of its kind in the world. And not only for chickpeas, but for the more than 119,000 varieties of the 11 crop types it caters for.

The genebank collects and stores seeds

Sube Singh, a lead scientific officer, who has worked in ICRISAT’s genebank since 1978, explains: “The collection, selection and storage of the genetic material of our seeds is an elaborate process. It is not just a matter of taking just “any” seed, and storing it in a bag.
We get seed material, sometimes as little as 100 seeds in a single sample. First we verify the characteristics of that particular variety: its origin, the growing period, the yield, resistance to pests or drought, and hundreds of other characteristics which make the genetic difference between the varieties. If we find we don’t have this variety yet, the seed sample goes into a quarantine area where we ensure the seed is free of any contamination or pest, as this could affect all other seeds we store or cultivate. After it is certified to be safe, we can process it further.”

“But the work does not stop there”, Mr Sing continues:  “An extensive biochemical analysis gives us further details on the seed sample’s characteristics, which are all stored in a central database. For some seeds, we need to regenerate it: if we only have a limited quantity, we reproduce new seeds from the sample we received, either in quarantined greenhouses or on our test fields.”

After a drying process, seeds are then stored into the “active collection”, an isolated vault storing the seeds in bottles, at +4 o C, where they can be kept for 25 to 30 years. Each seed variety is checked every five years to see if its capacity to reproduce is not degrading. The second vault, the “base collection”, stores seeds at -20 o C, where they can be kept for 100 years.

But the strength of a genebank is not in storing alone.

When I ask Sube what the real value of genebank is, his eyes light up…: “The more seeds which are re-used, the better. That is our real success factor”. He gave the example of Iraq and Afghanistan where the war wiped out those two countries’ genebank. There was no way to find the “core” seeds of the local food stocks anymore. This would have been catastrophic for the agriculture and the population as a whole, if it was not for the ICRISAT genebank: Local varieties of these crops were stored at the bank before the war. Samples were “repatriated” to both countries so the seeds could be regenerated, and distributed “en masse” to the farmers.

But it is not only Iraq and Iran. In the past thirty odd years, the ICRISAT genebank has distributed 1.4 million samples to 143 countries. Some of these varieties would have been lost for ever, if it wasn’t for the ICRISAT genebank.

Creating a future, thanks to the past.

Doomsday-like scenarios where countries loose their genetic material might be one –rather negative- example showing the importance of genebanks. A much more common use of biodiverse genetic material, is to generate new varieties, adapted to newly emerging needs.

Taking the example of chickpeas again, research showed that several accessions (or varieties) from a mini-core collection at the genebank were more drought resistant than the common “ICC4958” variety, widely used in semi-arid areas. Using the ICRISAT seed collection, new and better varieties were created and distributed.

“Drought resistance” is just one of the many qualifiers. Imagine what the impact is when one wants to create new varieties adapted to warmer or colder climates, resistant to pests, or to salinity…

“Salinity is a good example”, says Sube. “The 2004 tsunami contaminated millions of hectares of agricultural land with sea water. All of sudden, farmers found that their traditional seeds could no longer grow in this saltier environment. Through the genebank, we generated varieties which were adapted to their changed environment: varieties with a higher salinity resistance.”

As Sube was explaining me the mechanics and process of the selection and storage, the image of a coin collector came to my mind. I asked him: “An antique coin collector often has one piece he is particularly proud of, do you have one seed variety or one specific ‘find’, which you cherish like gold?”.

Sube smiled: “New varieties are created every day. One hundred year old samples, or a variety cultivated last year, for us, all have the same value, all are equally precious. For us, every seed sample is like gold”.

Read the original post on the CCAFS blog.

Written by Peter

February 19th, 2011 at 4:20 pm

About Super Chickpeas and Silent Heroes

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ICRISAT researcher in test field

During my past visits to Kenya, Ghana, Mali and Burkina Faso, one common streak always came up when talking to farmers about climate adaptation techniques: they were all actively using new seed varieties for their different crops.

I had not really questioned where those seed varieties came from. I saw them in the shops of commercial seed traders, so I asked no more. A bit like a child does not ask where Santa comes from. A long and complex process of seed selection and breeding remained hidden for me.

A visit to ICRISAT, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics near Hyderabad in India, changed all of that. I discovered the world’s headquarter for the agriculture research on five crops: sorghum, pearl millet, chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut. And I discovered the link between chickpeas, chickpea heroes and the war against hunger.

Food diets, malnutrition and chickpeas
Sufficient food, but also a balanced food intake are key to battle malnutrition. Often the world’s attention goes to staple foods like rice, maize or wheat. We often forget it takes other crops too, to make a balanced diet, in a global fight against hunger.

Chickpeas is one of those crops, and an important one, as they make up for more than 20 percent of the world pulse production. Chickpeas contain 22-25% proteins, and 2-3 times more iron and zinc than wheat. Chickpea protein quality is better than other pulses. …

So understandably, agricultural researchers, like Dr. Pooran M.Gaur, a principal scientist and chickpea breeder at ICRISAT, make continuous efforts to develop new chickpea varieties, adapted to fast changing environmental conditions. “Super Chickpeas”, as it were. Bred by –what I would not hesitate to call – “super scientists”, in the quiet isolation of agricultural research centers.

Agricultural research in service of food security
I meet Pooran amidst the ICRISAT chickpea test fields in Patancheru, near Hyderabad in India. He tells me a story which illustrates the importance, and profound impact agricultural research can have on food production, and food security: “In India, for hundreds of years, chickpeas have been grown in the relatively colder Northern areas during the dry winter season where they flourish in temperatures of 20 to 30 dgr C. The traditional chickpea varieties were not really suitable for the climate here in Andhra Pradesh for instance. They were late maturing and required longer duration (more than 120 days) to grow. That stretched the crop to grow into the hot season and moisture stress conditions. Ten years ago, only 160,000 hectares of chickpeas were grown in this state. The yield was only about 600 kgs/hectare.”

But things changed in recent years. Using a combination of different chickpea seed varieties which had a shorter growing season, and which were more resistant to higher temperatures, agricultural researchers like Pooran were able to breed varieties which needed only 90 to 95 days to mature.

“We distributed samples of these new varieties to universities and government institutes who tested them, and were impressed about the results. One particular variety, released as “JG11”, has thoroughly impacted the production of chickpeas in India, especially in the South.”

JG11 was rapidly adopted by many farmers in central and southern India. “Here in Andhra Pradesh, in just a few years, the total surface of chickpea cultivation increased to 630,000 hectares, a fourfold from before. But even more importantly, the average yield increased from 600 to 1,400 kgs/hectare, almost three times as much.”, Pooran explains.

Knowing how important chickpeas are in the typical Indian diet, one can say the impact of the new variety’s ninefold production increase had a profound impact.

But it is not the end of the road for chickpeas
As the “Super Chickpea” early varieties – like JG11 – are now widely used in India, and different parts of Asia and Africa, ICRISAT concentrates on other new varieties to help farmers adapt to the ever changing climate and environmental conditions.

“We use various parameters to select our breeding materials”, Pooran stresses. “We are developing varieties which are early maturing and high yielding, tolerant to drought and heat stresses, resistant to deceases and insect infestation, and have good seed quality”

ICRISAT supplies improved breeding lines to universities and government research institutes, who select the best lines, and release these as varieties. Further down the seed chain, the research institutes produce “breeder seed” which is used by the public and private seed sectors to produce “foundation seeds” and then “certified seeds”, which are sold to the farmers.
Up to now, ICRISAT -bred chickpea materials have led to the release of 73 new varieties in 10 countries.

Working for impact.
I ask Pooran if after 25 years working as a chickpea breeder, he ever thought of moving to another crop? “No way”, he answers, “chickpeas are ‘it’ for me. The world produces about 9 million tons of chickpeas per year, in 50 countries. These are not only used for their own production, but also as a cash crop, as over 140 countries import chickpeas. So the demand is high. For the poor in the world, combined with a staple food of rice, maize, sorghum, millet or any wheat, chickpeas make a perfect diet. It contains a lot of protein and is rich in minerals, amino acids and several vitamins.”

“But there is more to it: Chickpea is a hardy crop and can be grown in marginal lands on residual moisture, where the high-input crops fail to give economic returns. It is able to take much of its nitrogen requirement from the atmosphere by forming a symbiotic association with soil bacteria called rhizobium, and thus does not need much fertilizer.”

So when asked what his dream is, Pooran answers: “I would like to increase the global awareness of the qualities of chickpeas. Here at ICRISAT, we have already directly contributed to new varieties now used in semi-arid areas in several countries, including Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, which are prone to hunger and malnutrition. But we can spread it further. We also need to emphasize to farmers that chickpeas are not just a low input or a diversity crop: with the new varieties we are breeding now, farmers should be able to select those varieties adapted to their fields, and the changing weather. They need to be taught proper crop production technologies, so their yields can further increase”.

“Mr Super Chickpea”, is clearly a man with a mission. And he is not alone in the battle against hunger. Every day, dozens of researchers at ICRISAT, and thousands like them in similar research institutes join in his cause, helping farmers around the globe to adapt to climate change.

We can rightfully call them, “the silent heroes in the war against hunger”.

The original article was published on the CCAFS blog

Written by Peter

February 19th, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Farmers adapting to climate change:
Naakpi Kuunwena from Ghana

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Vegetable farm in Ghana

His name is written “Naakpi” and pronounced “Naakwi”, that we understood fast. But it took us much longer to comprehend why Naakpi looked so tired, and walked around with a back bent as if he had a burden too heavy for one man to carry.

We understood even less as we walked through an opening in the earth wall surrounding his farm and stepped onto his vegetable field: This one hectare plot was the largest, greenest and best maintained vegetable field we had seen so far. The cabbage, beans, tomato, peppers all stood in straight lines. A perfectly geometric maze of five inch wide irrigation canals divided the field into small sub-plots devour of any weeds.

All of us stood in awe. The sight of green that lush came as a surprise. So far, during our West-Africa trip for the Adaptation and Mitigation Knowledge Network (AMKN), we had been interviewing farmers harvesting at this time, one to two months into the dry season. Here, in Lawra – Northeast Ghana, it had been no different. But Naakpi still had a green plot. Why then did it not make him a happy man?

“This is by far the nicest plot I have seen so far, Naakpi”, I said, and congratulated him. He looked at me with sad eyes and shrugged: “Give it one more month, and I will loose it all”, he said. He told us the story.

Naakpi’s vegetable farm needs water “Water is a must for vegetables”, he explained, “As we grow groundnuts, maize, sorghum and millet during the rainy season, we use the dry season to grow vegetables. In the past I used to have a small plot and watered the plants using buckets. As my plot grew to one hectare, we now use small irrigation channels, and need much more water.”

An NGO dug a borehole on his field, but as the weather changed, the rains started later, and stopped earlier, the water level dropped. “I can not get anything from that well anymore”, Naakpi said, “Maybe three or four buckets per day, that’s it. But I need much more.”

Naakpi pumps water from the riverSo he invested in a motor pump, to transfer water from the river next to his plot. “I also dammed the river”, he said, showing us the four foot high stone dam he cemented right under a bridge. “Each year, during the rainy season, we build this dam. At the end of the dry season, we break it down again. For several years, it guaranteed us of sufficient water, throughout the dry season. Now, it is different.”

The river in Lawra is running dry“Even though we were only two months into the dry season, the water level had dropped that low, I had to build a secondary earth dam, only four inch high, to keep the water from seeping through the stone dam. I know this little water will run out in a few weeks. It won’t cover until we harvest the vegetables.”

Naakpi stretched his arm and slowly turned over his plot. “All what you see here, all this green, will be lost. We will loose this crop. No water, no vegetables, as simple as that. Only a miracle can save us, otherwise within three weeks, all of this will turn brown, and die.”

A miracle could only come under the shape of rains, but as this was the dry season, there was no hope. The next rains would come in six months time, at the earliest.

Naakpi would indeed loose his crop. And now, I understood why he looked as burdened as he was. The only hope he had was for sufficient rains next year, but as the weather patterns had shifted in the past four year, even that looked very unlikely.

For the first time in my interview tour, I saw a farmer who was loosing the battle against climate change. For the first time I really understood the importance of the AMKN initiative sharing research and farmer adaptation methods: Naakpi was not the only farmer in the world battling drought. Solutions in enhanced water management and alternative irrigation methods existed. We need to make that knowledge accessible so that farmers like Naakpi, could turn the odds around.

Read my original post on the CCAFS blog

Written by Peter

December 25th, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Global recession and aid: Bad outlook for the poorest.

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Red CrossRemember my post After the global financial crisis comes the global humanitarian crisis?

Well today both the optimists and the pessimists hit the news. Or maybe they are both pessimists.

On one hand the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (said to be the largest humanitarian organisation in the world) is considering cutting staff and shelving projects as it braces for recession-hit donors to slash aid contributions.
It warned of greater social unrest in poor countries as high food prices were compounded by slowing economic growth, job losses and falling income.

They added “It is ‘revolting’ that the US could find $700bn to bail out its financial sector while rich countries continued to fall short of their pledges to raise aid spending to 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product.”

During the 1990-1993 downturn, global aid spending fell by a quarter and did not recover to 1992 levels until 2003, the UN added. (Full

On the very same day, the UN asked for $7 billion to fund its humanitarian work around the world in 2009. That is almost double of last year’s appeal. (Full)

The need is greater, but the funding outlook for humanitarian aid is worse than before. The poorest will fall between the cracks of this dilemma.

Picture courtesy PSDTUTS

Written by Peter

November 19th, 2008 at 4:56 pm

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After the global financial crisis comes the global humanitarian crisis?

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Financial crisis causing a humanitarian crisis?
“The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled,
public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt.”

Cicero, 55 BC

What is the plural of “crisis”?

It seems like 2008 is becoming the year of global crisis. First we were faced with the worldwide food crisis, swiftly followed by, what now seems to be, a collapse of major financial institutions.

But it might not stop here. As FAO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, calculated the cost to deal with the current food crisis at US$30 billion per year, donors stepped up their financial support.

But that was before the current financial crisis. At this moment, the governments worldwide concentrate their financial resources in keeping their banks and financial institutions afloat:

  • The Belgian, French and Luxembourg governments put in US$9 billion to keep Dexia afloat. (Full)
  • Previously Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg put up US$16.1 billion to save the Fortis bank. (Full)
  • Britain is working on a US$87.7 billion bank recapitalization concentrating on Barclays, HSBC and the Bank of Scotland (Full)
  • Spain announced a US$40.9 billion fund to buy up bank assets and maintain liquidity (Full)
  • Sweden is given Iceland’s biggest bank, Kaupthing, an emergency loan worth up US$702 million) to help keep it afloat. (Full)
  • Germany has thrown a US$50 billion lifeline to struggling lender Hypo Real Estate. (Full)
  • Italy is about to set up a rescue fund close to US$30 billion for the banking industry. (Full)
  • Canada gave a US$25 billion “backstop” for there banks. (Full)
  • Russia pledged to boost liquidity by more than US$100bn (Full), on top of a US$5.4 billion loan to Iceland (Full)
  • And of course we all know about the $700 billion monster US bailout (Full)

Apart from the fact that economists doubt the effectiveness of bailouts, we might be facing the early beginning from a real 1930’s style recession. If the consumers’ confidence in the banks is not restored, governments can bailout all they want, up to the level where they bankrupt themselves. Like in Iceland, where the country declared anything short of a national bankruptcy

Any money left for international aid?

The end balance? During the food crisis, donor countries already stepped up their extra-budgetary funds to come to the rescue of aid organisations “on the occasion of the raising food prices”, but now are faced with the massive cash drain bailing out their own financial institutions.

At the same time, poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which are already dealing with a surge in food and energy prices, are now finding it harder to sell goods abroad and encourage investment in their own economies. (Full)

The question now is: how much money will be left for international aid?

This week, amidst the financial turmoil, world leaders met to review the progress of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These are intended to reduce extreme global poverty and, improve health and education.
It was stressed that development aid needed to increase by $18 billion each year towards fulfilling the goals. At the end of the event, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that an additional US$16 billion had been pledged by governments to meet the targets of the MDGs. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his address to the UN, went on to say that the financial crisis should not be an excuse to cut aid. (Full)

The “Humanitarian Doomsday scenario” – the first signs

Many of us, in the aid organisations, are not that optimistic as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon:

Journalist Andrew Stroehlein, the Director of Media and Information for the International Crisis Group, states it bluntly: “I might as well just pack up and go on holiday for a few months. With the global financial crisis continuing, no one wants to hear about violent conflict and mass atrocities around the world”. (Full)

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, just wrapped up its annual refugee conference and it is concerned its needs may not be met because of the global financial crisis. (Full)

“The financial turmoil rippling across the globe will set back efforts to fight climate change, drying up capital that could help poorer countries upgrade to clean energy technology”, said Yvo de Boer, the executive secretary of the U.N. climate secretariat, adding: “You can’t pick an empty pocket”. (Full)

Will the global financial crisis also cause a global humanitarian crisis? Time will tell, but it looks like it. As history showed, the poorest of the world always pick the shortest straw.

Update Oct 15: Aid agencies say world’s poorest will be biggest victims of world’s financial crisis

More posts on The Road about the food crisis, poverty, development, the UN and the economy.

Original picture courtesy Susan Manuel (WFP)

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Written by Peter

October 11th, 2008 at 4:18 am

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