The Economist Magazine Calls for an Increase in “Seed Money”

11 September, 2015 by (comments)

banks_bean_countersReporters for The Economist write about banks all the time – but usually focus on the ones that are stuffed with money. This week, however, in an article titled Banks for bean counters, the heavyweight news magazine puts the spotlight on seed banks and their vital role in combating global hunger.

The plant genetic resources 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 related article (A dying breed) in the same issue of The Economist. 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.”

dying_breedWhen extensively collected, safely conserved, and made widely available for intelligent use, plant genetic resources provide 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 CIAT scientists Colin Khoury and Nora Castañeda-Alvarez, which identifies large gaps in the collections of more than a thousand crop wild relatives 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 article quotes CIAT bean breeder Steve Beebe as saying that the improved beans keep their cool despite increases in average temperatures of 3 degrees Celsius or even more. Over the next couple of decades, Beebe expects the heat-tolerant beans to serve as a powerful weapon for fighting hunger and malnutrition as climate change impacts kick in.

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.

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