Sharing Germplasm Around the World

Published on: 14:30PM Nov 10, 2016


The math is inexorable-in order to produce sufficient food to feed a global population of more than 9 billion people by 2050, there will need to be at least a 50 percent increase in global food production over current levels.  Because of constraints on the availability of arable land, water, and the expected impact from increased climate variability, much of the burden for that gain must come from increased productivity.


Extensive modeling indicates that climate change is likely to result in more frequent extreme weather events, manifesting in the form of more severe droughts and also more severe and widespread flooding. In addition, higher temperatures and new precipitation patterns will affect insect populations, the incidence of pathogens and invasive species, and the geographic distribution of both.    


Subsequently, the work of crop scientists around the world over the next several decades will focus heavily on trying to develop traits in food crops that will help those crops be more resilient in the face of such pressures.  Although relatively new, CRISPR/CA-9 technology, also known as gene editing, seems likely to be used for a wider variety of crops than has been the case with earlier methods of genetic engineering, which involved the insertion of foreign genes into crops to modify characteristics, such as resistance to certain pests or herbicides.  Because of the cost of using this technology, it has largely been used for major commercial crops, such as corn and soybeans, for which companies can recoup the cost of their investments by imposing technology fees on seed sales.


In April 2016, U.S. regulators made the decision to not require crops modified through gene editing to go through the lengthy approval process faced by GMO crops.  As a result, a button mushroom variety modified through gene editing to turn brown less slowly in one's refrigerator, will shortly be offered in U.S. grocery stores. To date, the European Commission has declined to take a stand on this matter, neither following the U.S. example or yet determining whether or not to apply their existing rules with respect to GMO products to this new technology.  The broad applicability of this technology will depend in large part on whether other governments agree with the U.S. approach or insisting on treating such products the same as those developed through genetic engineering.


Whether individual crop scientists adopt gene editing or continue with more conventional crop breeding practices, their urgent work in developing more climate resilient crops will be aided by two new, related institutions designed to help preserve crop biodiversity around the world.


The first was the establishment of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which was agreed to by member countries of the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in 2001.  The goal of the Treaty is to establish a global system to provide farmers, plant breeders and scientists with access to plant genetic materials, while recognizing the rights of the farmers and countries from where the material originated, with benefit-sharing where appropriate.  The Treaty entered into force in 2004 when sufficient countries ratified or otherwise formally joined as contracting parties.  The Treaty covers exchange of genetic materials for 64 named crops, including main staple crops such as wheat, rice, potatoes, and corn, but excludes several key crops such as soybeans, sugar cane, and peanuts (known elsewhere in the world as groundnuts) because of the political sensitivities of those crops in some countries.


President George W. Bush submitted the Treaty to the Senate for consideration in 2008, but the United States did not formally join the Treaty until September 28, 2016, when the U.S. Senate ratified it on a division vote.  The Senate’s decision to finally approve the Treaty after eight years was welcomed by the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA).  In a statement the next day, ASTA’s President hailed it as “a win for the American seed industry and for agriculture innovation around the world.”


In 2004, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (now the Crop Trust) was founded as a non-profit organization devoted to preserving crop diversity in order to protect global food security.  In 2006, the governing body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources entered into an agreement with the Trust, recognizing the key role it was playing in raising funds to facilitate the collection of seed samples to ensure the preservation of diverse crop species, especially from developing countries.  In 2008, the Trust joined the Nordic Gene Bank and the Government of Norway in constructing a facility in Svalbard, Norway--north of the Arctic Circle--to serve as a back-up repository for critical seed bank collections.  


About one year ago, in October 2015, the first ‘withdrawal’ was made from the Svalbard vault, with scientists from war-torn Syria seeking to replenish their seed stocks to continue their research.  These scientists work for one of the international CGIAR research centers, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas, or ICARDA.  Due to the continuing instability in Syria, the scientists have shifted their research plots to Lebanon.