Why I believe gene banks are a waste of money

March 14, 2003

Recently a ransom demand was made calling for £163 million. At stake, we were told, was our future food security. We were threatened that if we didn't pay, our children would starve. That demand was made by a panel of experts who met in Rome last year to found a new international institute, the Global Conservation Trust.

The GCT claims that our future food security depends on seed stored in gene banks. These are located in more than 150 countries and contain 5.4 million samples of crops and their wild relatives. But the funds for many of these gene banks are drying up. The GCT aims to prop up this system of genebanks by first raising and then disbursing a fund of £163 million. I believe this amounts to little more than a misconceived ransom demand based on scaremongering.

The trust insists that crop diversity collections are in a precarious state. This is not so. There may be some unimportant national collections at risk, but the big boys are doing well. Food security in developing countries depends on a combination of large well-managed national gene banks in countries such as Brazil, India and China, as well as the gene banks of the 13 international agricultural research institutes. They should receive priority funding through existing mechanisms.

The GCT tells us that deforestation is wiping out crop-wild relatives.

Almost the opposite is true. The wild relatives of our most important cereals and legumes are weedy plants that thrive where forest is cut down.

While tree crops such as rubber and avocado could be threatened by deforestation, they are little used in breeding and can be maintained from botanic gardens and research stations.

The GCT says that there has been widespread loss of traditional varieties as modern ones have spread. This seriously underestimates farmers' skills at innovating new varieties that emerge, multiply, disperse and die only to be replaced in their turn. Trying to save this dynamism in cold stores is like stopping quicksilver running through your fingers.

There is much that we are not told. The massive value extracted from gene bank samples has been already incorporated into plant breeders' advanced lines. These are of greater value and are more accessible than seed locked up in some institution. More seriously, there are now not enough plant breeders to use the 5.4 million samples stored in the world's gene banks.

Crops such as soybean and groundnut will receive low priority from the GCT as they are excluded from the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. There is duplication between the GCT and existing structures to monitor and support genetic resources within the food and agriculture organisation of the United Nations and the international agricultural research centres. There is also a standing offer of secure and free storage for global collections in the Nordic permafrost gene bank on the Svalbard Islands.

And we are not told that all this was tried before. A report from 1972 argued the "need to conserve genetic resources against the needs of the future". It proposed a global network of genetic resource centres. It recommended the establishment of a committee, a central staff, a trust fund, and cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organisation. It seems the GCT has dusted off this report 31 years later.

The 1972 recommendations were all implemented. A precursor to the GCT that brought together experts was told to solve the problem within five years.

Its programme continues 31 years later, with a budget equalling the GCT's demand of £163 million. If funding agencies have already paid for international seed security, why are they being asked to do so again?

The GCT is fundraising propaganda in place of truth. It is superfluous for our most important food security collections.

David Wood
Former academic and agricultural development consultant based in the UK and India

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