Science in Society Archive

Italy's Genebank At Risk

Prof. Pietro Perrino tells the story of how Italy's gene bank, among the ten largest in the world, risks being destroyed under an enforced merger with groups preoccupied with genetic modification of crop plants

The Germplasm Institute in Bari

The Germplasm Institute (GI) of the Italian National Research Council (CNR) was founded in 1970, in Bari, Italy, with the aim to collect, preserve, multiply, characterise, evaluate and distribute plant genetic resources, both cultivated and wild relatives, that are threatened by genetic erosion and/or extinction and important for agriculture.

From 1970 to 2002, the GI collaborated with many national and international organisations including the US Department of Agriculture, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and different centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and collected germplasm in many countries of the Mediterranean Basin, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Africa. In more than 100 expeditions, over 13 000 samples of wheat and other cereals, pea, broad bean, and other pulses, including wild relatives were collected. The GI has also acquired samples of germplasm through exchange with other gene banks and institutions. So that, today, the collections of germplasm amount to about 84 000 accessions: cereals (38 000), pulses (9 000), vegetables (3 000), fodder gramineae (2 000), fodder leguminosae (4 500), medicinal plants (700) and numerous active collections (25 000) belonging to around 600 species.

Seed samples are stored at a relative humidity of 35 percent and 0°C (medium term conservation) and -20°C (long term conservation). During and after multiplication and/or rejuvenation as well as during storage, part of the collections is also submitted to characterisation and seed germination tests.

In all, 1 400 genebanks in the world (FAO) are preserving ex situ more than 6 million of accessions of plant germplasm (mainly seed samples). Of this germplasm 1 percent is preserved at GI, 30 percent in other gene banks of Europe and 69 percent in the rest of the world. The GI is the only gene bank in Italy, preserving nearly 90 percent of the ex situ Italian plant germplasm and according to the size of collections and standard of conservation, it is the second in Europe, after the German gene bank, and is among the ten biggest gene banks in the world. During the 32 years between 1970 and 2002, during most of which I was director of the GI, we distributed over 81 000 accessions, more than those annually distributed by all of the Centres of the CGIAR.

Research projects at GI were oriented to stimulate and to promote utilisation of indigenous plant germplasm. Three strategies were adopted. The first was to select genetic resources in collaboration with local farmers. The second was to select germplasm in collaboration with plant breeders, looking for adaptive and good qualitative characters all along the line that leads to the end food products. The third was to develop, in collaboration with other institutions, academic research for longer-term objectives, such as to widen the genetic base through breeding and studies of cell genetics, and better understanding of the potentialities of maintenance through studies of seed physiology.

From 1970 to 2002, the costs of germplasm collection, maintenance, research and salaries were about € 50 million. Apart from preserving the 84 000 accessions, GI contributed to exploration, collection, multiplication and conservation strategies, published more than 1 000 scientific papers, provided databases on documentation of the collections and trained more than 1 000 Italian and foreign visitors, students and researchers. Most of all, many of the genetic resources maintained in genebank are unique and very often no longer present in cultivated fields, due to the high genetic erosion caused by the diffusion of new varieties with a very narrow genetic base. In this respect, the introduction and cultivation of GMOs would make the situation even worst. Thus, the germplasm maintained in the genebank should be considered of a very high value for developing sustainable and organic agriculture.

Merging of the GI with other research centres against the wishes of the employees

In November 2002, against the will of myself, as Director of the GI , and a significant number of employees, the GI in Bari was merged with other much smaller CNR research centres that since their origin, have been engaged with genetics, plant breeding activities and more recently with genetic engineering on citrus fruits in Palermo, on vegetable crops and flowers in Naples, on fodder crops in Perugia and on forest trees in Florence. This merged entity was called Istituto di Genetica Vegetale (IGV) (Plant Genetic Institute). It is worth stressing that within the University system in Italy, there are at least 30 other Plant Gentic Institutes, whereas there is only one Germplasm Intitute in the CNR. And according to the rules of reformation of CNR, the GI should have been strengthened and not closed down by merging it with other groups to form a centre, which, as said, duplicates other university departments and with much more emphasis on genetic engineering activity. T he battles from April 2001 to October 2002 between GI employees, supported by the Agricultural Councillor of Apulia Region and the Ministry of Agriculture on one side and the top management of CNR on the other were largely in vain, except that, in order to placate the GI employees and the politicians, the seat of IGV was moved from Naples to Bari, and the thematics of research of the IGV was extended to include part of the GI activities and interests, which had previously been completely ignored.

The merger endangers germplasm collection

Since November 2002, the management of the IGV has created a lot of trouble for the ex GI. The most serious concerns the cooling system for seed storage in the genebank, which did not function for a few months and therefore the temperature of cold storage rooms went up for a considerable number of days. The Magistrate of Bari has already made an intervention with the result that I was nominated judicial custodian of the gene bank. Only then was the cooling system repaired. Nevertheless, the Magistrate has decided to maintain the judicial custodian until the probable damage to the germplasm collections caused by the increase of room storage temperature can be evaluated.

Moves to save the genebank

I, as Director of the ex-GI, now Research Manager, together with a few remaining colleagues are fighting to defend the gene bank and the stored plant genetic resources from the Director of the IGV and his lobby, who want to have full control of the germplasm in order to use it as a pretext for getting large research funds, as they are not interested in biodiversity but are fully involved in GMOs or even worse, in the opinion of some of us (including outsider supporters), the lobby, linked to multinationals, wants to destroy the germplasm and prevent farmers from using them. This last hypothesis is not so strange if one considers that the Director of the IGV did not respond positively to the request of repairing the cooling systems of seed storage rooms when they were not functioning.

The CBD the Treaty of FAO and its legal implementation in Italy

On 30 March 2004, the Italian Senate discussed the draft of the law n. 2845 that ratified the execution of “The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture” of the FAO (see “Save our seeds”, this series) adopted by the thirty-first Conference of FAO in Rome on 3 November 2001. The law was approved by the Chamber of the deputies; and as the Law came into effect on 6 April 2004, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has allocated to the IGV the sum of € 155 000. How is the Director of IGV to use these funds in agreement with the Treaty if the genebank is under judicial attachment? Will the Director of the IGV use these extra funds assigned for activities of conservation intended by the Treaty, after having put to risk the entire gene bank collection?

The future of the genebank uncertain

The future of the Bari gene bank and the preserved germplasm is uncertain. We do not know when the germplasm collections will be evaluated for damages that may have been done during the breakdown of the cooling system, and when the gene bank will be placed under the full direct control of the Italian Government and not left in the hands of people that would not take care of it, or would simply use it to make GMOs.

The Sustainable World Global Initiative and the future of genebanks

In conclusion, the Sustainable World conference maybe the right forum to start a world-wide evaluation on the state of the world's gene banks, to verify their functionality and usefulness, how well the plant germplasm is being preserved, how much and how often it is used and for what purposes, and how much is the cost of maintenance in order to understand whether ex situ conservation in gene bank is a usefu l strategy for implementing sustainable food systems around the world.

This article is an edited version of Prof. Pietro Perrino's presentation at the Sustainable World Conference 14-15 July 2005 in Westminster, London. His Presentation can be found on the Independent Science Panel website

Article first published 03/08/05

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