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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

The Economist Magazine on crop diversity conservation


In mid September, The Economist ran three parallel articles highlighting the importance of crop diversity, and the challenges of collecting and conserving this diversity in order to improve present and future food security. The articles mentioned many initiatives in which CIAT plays a role, including the DAPA crop wild relatives project.

The crop diversity stored in seed banks include farmers’ traditional “landraces” as well as “crop wild relatives” – i.e., wild plants related to domesticated crop species – which contain a wealth of genes for pest resistance, drought tolerance, and other valuable traits. Collecting such materials is less dangerous than it used to be but remains complicated, as explained in A dying breed. Citing the views and experience of CIAT board chair Geoff Hawtin and seed bank head Daniel Debouck, the article calls on governments everywhere “to understand the urgency of preserving – and sharing – their biodiversity.”

Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Beans at the CIAT gene bank in Colombia, which has just sent its latest consignments of seeds for conservation at the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway.

Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT). Beans at the CIAT gene bank in Colombia, which has just sent its latest consignments of seeds for conservation at the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway.

When extensively collected, safely conserved, and made widely available for intelligent use, crop genetic diversity provides insurance (another favorite subject of The Economist) in the face of multiple threats to food production. The stored seeds are an especially valuable safeguard against the impacts of climate change, which imperil crop yields through higher temperatures, more frequent and intense drought and flooding, as well as more severe pest and disease attacks.

The Banks for bean counters piece refers to a forthcoming study by the DAPA crop wild relative team, which identifies large gaps in the collections of more than a thousand wild relative species held in seed banks around the world. The article also describes CIAT’s recent and widely publicized discovery of common beans possessing heat tolerance. These resulted from crosses with a hardy cousin of the common bean, called tepary bean, which comes from the arid US Southwest. Numerous samples of tepary bean are preserved in the seed bank at CIAT headquarters in Colombia.

The message of these articles (and especially the call for action in the leader, titled Growing Pains is in tune with a major initiative that CIAT started last year to replace its aging seed bank with a new, state-of-the art facility. Architectural plans are taking shape, and partial funding has already been secured. The new bank will not only safeguard seed of beans, cassava, tropical forages, and other crops but also disseminate genetic information that helps unleash the power of these seeds and educate a wider public about the value of preserving and sharing agricultural biodiversity.

A substantial portion of this blog was reposted from the CIAT news website, originally authored by Nathan Russell.

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