More than 22 years have passed since the Convention on Biological Diversity was signed. It called for international efforts to conserve the world’s biodiversity, which had long been suffering the effects of human activities. Since then, there has been a lot of debate over what the best way of securing this biodiversity is.

But really, there isn’t a best way. There isn’t a clear consensus, one method to fit all. We can’t choose one way to preserve all the different elements that form what we call biodiversity.

Plant science often uses genetics as a tool to uncover how plants work. This is only possible because of the enormous complexity and variability that nature has. And the same diversity is important for crop and animal breeders, who use nature’s variability to get new varieties and breeds.

A lot of thought has to be put into how to conserve genetic diversity. The main difference between genetic diversity and other types of diversity is that it is endangered not only by environmental degradation, but also by the extensive adoption of relatively few crop varieties in modern agriculture. A small number of elite, genetically homogenous varieties are grown instead of a wide range of genetically diverse crops.

This isn’t to say that the use of elite varieties, which allows for yearly increases in global yield and productivity, should be avoided. It just means that conservation efforts must run alongside this traditional model. Ideally, this genetic diversity – whether preserved in fields or outside field systems, eg in seedbanks – should be made accessible and incorporated into breeding programmes. Crop conservation scientists call this pre-breeding.

Crop diversity (Crop Trust/Flickr)

Crop diversity. Photo: Crop Trust/Flickr.

Using wild plant genetic resources in breeding is a sustainable way of developing resilient varieties. Wild species of crops and their relatives can be sources of resistance to diseases, pests and environmental stresses. This is essential when our crops are expected to feed an increasing world population while facing a more unpredictable climate. And at the same time, we need to protect the environment by reducing our use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.

Conserving genetic diversity isn’t just a matter of ethics either. At least 40 percent of the world’s economy depends on biological resources; our crops’ genetic diversity is an insurance policy for the future of food security. Plant genetic resources are an asset that, once lost, can’t be recovered. This is why their conservation is so important.

The John Innes Centre has its own seedbank – its Germplasm Resources Unit. Since 1980, it has housed collections of cereals and legumes, and these are frequently used by researchers, locally and internationally, for basic research and trait discovery.

But using seedbank resources in research and breeding has its difficulties. There is still an overall lack of genetic and trait information on the material that is conserved. An estimated seven million seeds are housed in 1,700 centres around the world, and finding the information that can help agriculture can be a difficult task. But a lot of effort is now being put into improving the material’s accessibility.

This month, a group of 69 international stakeholders in regulating, conserving, managing and utilising plant genetic resources met in San Diego, California. Their exciting new initiative, DivSeek, will aim to unlock the genetic and trait information of entire seedbank collections around the world. This will hopefully bridge the gap between the seedbanks’ material and breeders, researchers and plant biotechnology companies. DivSeek also hopes it can help speed up the incorporation of new genetic diversity into crop varieties, which can currently take up to 10 years. The Genome Analysis Centre, based alongside the John Innes Centre on the Norwich Research Park, was represented at the inaugural meeting, as was BBSRC, Niab, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and several CGIAR centres.

As a fan of the work of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, I couldn’t finish without including this great video that they published this week. The name of the video answers in one nice sentence why seedbanks are so important: to secure our food, forever. I’m very excited to see what results we’ll see from DivSeek, and to hear news from this and new initiatives in the future.

[vimeo 116843898]

Gabi is an MSc student at the John Innes Centre. She tweets as @gabiieverett.

Featured image: Dennis Wilkinson/Flickr.

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