Science in Society Archive

SOS: Save Our Seeds

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho warns of new dangers posed by genetic engineering to the world's gene banks, already in jeopardy from years of under-funding, and stresses the importance of in situ conservation and seed saving in local communities for sustainable food systems and food security

World genebanks and food security in jeopardy

Deteriorating conditions in the world's crop gene banks pose “a major threat to US agriculture,” says a new study published by the University of California Genetic Resources Conservation Program [1]. The report, Securing the Future of U.S. Agriculture: The Need to Conserve Collections of Crop Diversity Worldwide , notes that nearly every major crop in the United States - including soybeans, corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, oranges and apples - is battling a plethora of new or re-merging pests to which there is little or no resistance. Failure to adequately maintain crop genebank collections “could constrain agriculture's ability to avert billions of dollars in crop damage.”

These genebanks provide the diversity needed to enable the crops “to stay one step ahead of pests”, and also to improve quality, nutritional value, and yield. But lack of funding has left many of the collections in a state of decay.

Just prior to the publication of the report, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Borlaug was warning the world of a new rust epidemic from East Africa, that, if it gets loose in Asia, North America, South America and Australia, would infect half of all our grain varieties, and the stage would be set for a major disaster. This calls for ongoing research. “But when you haven't had a major epidemic in 52 years, complacency becomes a problem.” Borlaug said.

Underlying the almost $200 billion value of US agriculture's production at the farm level is a little known resource – the genebanks around the world. The report, released at a congressional briefing in Washington 28 February 2005, noted that the collections held in gene banks “represent the historic and current diversity of agriculture, without which farming in the U.S. and around the world would stagnate and flounder.”

Qualset and Henry L. Shands, director of the USDA/Agricultural Research Service's National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, were co-authors of the report.

At the World Food Day symposium on 19 October 2004, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Director-General Jacques Diouf delivered a similar message on the importance of genebanks [2]. He said that global efforts to conserve plants and animals in genebanks, botanical gardens and zoos are vital to maintaining global biodiversity and promoting food security worldwide. In fact, the theme of the 24 th annual World Food Day was “Biodiversity for Food Security”.

Worldwide, there are nearly 5.4 million crop samples in 1 470 gene banks [3]. These are important repositories for conserving seeds and germplasm, as agricultural biodiversity has been severely eroded under industrial monoculture practised over the latter half of the last century [2] (see Box 1). Lack of biodiversity leaves major crops vulnerable to disease, causing famines and starvation. The Irish Potato famine in the 1830s was one example, when the Phytophthora potato blight destroyed the entire crop, as the farmers grew only one variety, and there was no genetic diversity in seed banks or elsewhere to fall back on. Gene banks also play a vital role in maximizing the use of wild and cultivated varieties in crop improvement through selective breeding.

Box 1

Loss of agricultural biodiversity from industrial monoculture

FAO estimates that about 75 percent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops had been lost during the last century. Farmers in the United States grew more than 7 000 varieties of apples in the 1800s; by the end of the 1900s, all but 300 were extinct. In 1949, farmers in China grew 10 000 varieties of wheat; by the 1970s, they grew just 1000. Similar losses of maize varieties have occurred in Mexico and of rice varieties in India. Of 6 500 animal breeds known today, almost one third are threatened or already extinct.

Genebanks have been in major trouble for some years; there simply is not enough money for gene banks to fulfil even their basic conservation role, let alone their other role of maximising the use of wild and domesticated varieties for crop breeding and improvement.

When dried and kept cold, some seeds will last for 30 years or longer. Others have to be grown out regularly and harvested to keep seeds fresh and alive. Tubers, roots and cuttings for plants can be kept in test tubes, usually as tissue culture, and periodically regenerated. All these cannot be done without money. Without proper care, existing seed stock will eventually lose its viability.

Prof. Jeff Waage of Imperial College's department of agricultural sciences in London, UK, had earlier reported to the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in August 2002 [3], that although the number of plant samples held in crop diversity collections has increased by 65 percent, genebank budgets have been cut back in 25 percent of the countries and remained the same in another 35 percent.

Waage's report said that one in 12 of the world's 250 000 species of flowering plants are likely to disappear before 2025. A chief culprit is modern agriculture, particularly when forests are cleared to create farmland. “Among the losses are the wild relatives of domesticated plants with as yet untapped potential,” said the report. These include wheat, soya beans, tomatoes, coffee and grapes

To add to the trouble, war in developing countries had destroyed some vital centres, other have their electricity cut off, so rare seeds are not kept in cool conditions required. Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and Romania have all lost their genebanks. Albania, Fiji and Nigeria have lost part of their collections.

In response to the crisis in gene banks, the Global Crop Diversity Trust was launched at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002 (Box 2).

Box 2

Global Crop Diversity Trust

The Global Crop Diversity Trust was set up in 2002 at the World Summit for Sustainable Development as a type 2 (public-private partnership) involving the FAO and the 15 “Future Harvest Centres” of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) [4, 5]. It hopes to raise US$260 million required to protect the world's most important crop species; so far, only $56 million has been committed. Among the first grants are to the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry (VIR) based in St. Petersburg, established and named after the famous Russian plant geneticist Nicolai Vavilov, which now holds around 95 000 accessions of grain crops, over 43 000 legumes and 50 000 vegetables. Nikolai Vavilov was one of the first and most prolific collectors of plant seeds; he made more than 100 collecting missions around the world between 1915 and 1930, and was responsible for the idea of “centres of origin” for regions with a high diversity of species.

Genetic engineering the new threat

A new threat to genebanks has surfaced in the events surrounding the forced merger in 2002 of Italy's gene bank in Bari – among the world's ten largest – with much smaller centres involved in genetic modification of crop plants (“Italy's gene bank at risk”, this series).

Although by far the biggest institution in the merger, its director since 1982, Prof. Pietro Perrino, was sidelined in the competition for the directorship of the merged institute, which went instead, to a professor in Naples who has yet to move to Bari. Perrino was downgraded to “manager” of Bari's germplasm collection of 84 000 accessions. But right from the first, it was obvious that the new director has little or no interest in preserving the collection. Things came to a head when the cooling system broke down and the director refused to have it repaired. In desperation, Perrino resorted to the law court to have the collection placed under his custody in order to have the cooling system repaired. But damages to the collection may have already occurred.

Perrino and his supporters are convinced that the new director and the “pro-GM lobby” are not at all interested in conserving the collection, but are using it as a pretext for getting research funding for genetic modification. More than that, Perrino and his supporters suspect that the pro-GM lobby and the GM giants really would like to see the collection destroyed.

This sounds far-fetched until one gets inside the genetic engineer's mindset. To a genetic engineer, DNA is all. Once a genome sequence is known and deposited in a database, and the DNA of the plant genome deposited in a DNA biobank, then the seed or plant is really of little or no interest. After all, DNA sequences of any gene can easily be synthesized in the laboratory and used to transform existing crop plants to make any desired GM variety, be it herbicide tolerance, insect resistance, salt or drought tolerance, improved nutritional properties, increase in yield, etc., at least in theory. That is precisely the same mentality that motivates “gene-hunting” of indigenous tribes threatened with extinction, so as to preserve their DNA before they become extinct, “for the good of humanity”.

Unfortunately, we can no more resurrect a plant from its DNA than reconstruct an extinct indigenous tribe with its distinctive language, knowledge and culture that constitute an entire way of life.

This exclusive emphasis on DNA is misplaced even for genetic engineers, especially those using marker-assisted selective breeding on existing lines to enable them to identify useful traits [6]. The genetic markers can be identified through screening the DNA; but the plants themselves will still be needed for cross-breeding.

An additional disincentive for proponents of GM to preserve germplasm in seed banks is that they are considered the natural heritage of the earth, if not of the human species, and cannot be patented for commercial exploitation if there is no genetic modification or gene isolation involved (see the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Box 3). So, as far as agribusiness is concerned, they are of no commercial value, or indeed of negative commercial value, as seed or germplasm collection allows farmers to do their own selective breeding for improving crops and livestock, instead of having to purchase patented seeds from the companies and pay royalties. That would reverse the corporate serfdom being imposed on farmers all over the world (see SiS 26), and that's precisely the reason why gene banks are important, particularly if farmers can get ready access to their collections (see below).

Box 3

International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

This treaty is the outcome of the International Undertaking (IU) on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture adopted by the FAO conference in 1983. Starting in 1996, the IU was revised through negotiations to make it compatible with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and renamed the International Treaty (IT). Negotiations were finalized in November 2001, and the IT was hailed by FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf [2] as “a triumph for the indigenous farmers, herders, forest dwellers and fishing communities of the world.” It establishes a multilateral system of access and benefit sharing to ensure that plant genetic resources of the greatest importance to food security are readily available for use now and in the future, and that any benefits are shared with the countries in which they originated. It also establishes a mechanism to ensure that researchers worldwide have access to those resources. Critics note however, that it does not go far enough in protecting our common heritage from commercial exploitation and patenting (“Science for the poor, or procurer for the rich?” SiS 15). The United States is a signatory to the treaty, which entered into force in June 2004.

In situ conservation against corporate serfdom

Apart from the ex situ conservation, in situ conservation - maintaining biodiversity on farms and in nature – is equally important, if not more so, for counteracting corporate serfdom.

Jacque Diouf himself has stressed the importance of in situ conservation [2]. “The responsibility for conserving agrobiodiversity on farms in a great part of the world usually belongs to women farmers who traditionally harvest and conserve crop seeds from season to season.” Said Diouf. “This local agrodiversity is particularly important for the resilience of farming systems and communities in emergencies or humanitarian crises, such as those that affected more than 45 million people last year.” He pointed out that most of the earth's genetic diversity is found in the poor countries in the developing world; and that “it is imperative that those most responsible for its development and its preservation - the indigenous people who maintain the farms, the herds, the forests and the fishing areas - are both respected and rewarded for their efforts.”

In situ conservation and seed saving by local communities themselves is the key to recovering and safeguarding local agricultural biodiversity for genuinely sustainable food systems that involves local production and consumption, and restores self-sufficiency and autonomy to farmers and the local communities.

“There used to be many local variety seeds not only for food crops such as rice and corn, but also for beans/legumes and fruit trees.” Says Hira Jhamtani of Konphalindo, Indonesia, a public interest organisation involved in promoting sustainable agriculture. “The problem is that the knowledge is dying with the old farmers, and the younger generation has no comprehensive knowledge on seed conservation, nor do they seem to be interested. This is where scientists can play a role in documenting local seed varieties and reviving seed breeding among the younger generations based and rooted in local knowledge. The local know-how still exists in many places in Indonesia (and also the Philippines), the question is how to regenerate the biodiverse agricultural-base and revitalise this knowledge through community based activities.”

Neth Dano, associate of Third World Network in the Philippines, who has worked with local communities to develop sustainable agriculture for many years, is less than happy about a blanket call to increase funding for genebanks.  “The genebank/ ex situ strategy should not be seen as a stand-alone genetic conservation strategy but should complement the in-situ /on-farm strategies of communities, institutions and civil society.” Says Dano,  “This would require genebank scientists working closely with farmers and indigenous peoples in seeds conservation on farm.  Increase funding for genebanks should be tied to increased funding for in-situ /on-farm conservation and utilization efforts.”  This will ensure that the genebanks will not just conserve genetic resources for corporate agriculture, but first and foremost for world food security and the livelihood of those who have nurtured and are dependent on these genetic resources.

“We also have to take note that there are many cases when the ex situ conservation is not relevant at all, as in the case of the Least Developed Countries which cannot even afford to pay for electricity to keep the genebanks running after these have been built through grants or even loans that the future generation will have to pay.” Dano adds.

She also points out that even if most or all of the collections in the CGIAR genebanks are not patented, as they are “common heritage of mankind”, they remain inaccessible to farmers especially if traditional breeds have already been lost.  Genebanks should make every effort to ensure that their collections are accessible to the farmers and indigenous peoples who need them, as most of the materials were collected by scientists from farming and indigenous communities in the first place.  There must be concrete mechanisms to inform farmers and to facilitate farmers' access to these materials.

Seed-saving against corporate serfdom

Seed saving is an important activity that does not have to wait for massive funding, and many local communities have already started to do just that, to make sure they conserve what they still have, and not to depend on genebanks.

For example, the Henry Doubleday Research Association in the UK with 30 000 members are a major seed saver for organic gardening and farming, although it is not a gene bank. Its Heritage Seed Library conserves and makes available to members European vegetable varieties that are not widely available. Currently, 700 accessions of open-pollinated varieties are held, of which about 200 are in its Seed Catalogue sent free to members ( ).

Navdanya (“Nine seeds”) started by Dr. Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India is active not only in seed saving but also in revitalising indigenous knowledge and culture, in creating awareness on the hazards of genetic engineering, and in defending people's knowledge from biopiracy and people's food rights in the face of globalisation. It has its own seed bank and organic farm over an area of 20 acres in Uttranchal, north India ( ).

In Ireland, Anita Hayes founded the Irish Seed Savers Association (ISSA) in 1991 in her own home and garden. But with a core of willing helpers and seed donations, and financial aid from government bodies and many generous funders, the ISSA took off. It now has a large collection of Irish fruits, cereals and vegetables ( ).

Article first published 01/08/05


  1. “Crop diversity vital to world's ag”, Hembree Brandon, Southwest Farm Press 2 June 2005,
  2. “Gene Banks Help Maintain Global Biodiversity, U.N Official Says, October 19, 2004” 20 October 2004
  3. “Lack of cash puts gene banks in jeopardy” Guardian Newspapers 29 August 2002.
  4. Start with a Seed.
  5. “Gene-banks: fund them or lose them” New Agriculturist on-line, 1 January 2005.
  6. Tanksley SD and McCouch SR. Seed banks and molecular maps: unlocking genetic potential from the wild. Science 1997, 277, 1063-66.

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