Azara Blog: More money is needed for global seed banks

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Date published: 2005/06/03

Nature says (subscription service) in an editorial:

Thirty kilometres from Aleppo in Syria, not far from the birthplace of agriculture, is the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). It includes an international gene bank that holds seeds in trust on behalf of the world's dry countries.

Organized through the World Bank and funded by international donors, ICARDA's gene bank holds samples of 131,000 individual seeds for plants that form part of the diets of one billion people who live in Central and West Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. The seeds include different varieties of barley, beans, chickpeas and lentils, catalogued and stored in sealed plastic bottles inside giant refrigerated vaults.
When Taliban fighters looted Afghanistan's national seed store in 2002, they took the empty plastic bottles, leaving the seeds behind. Even so, the country's scientists needed ICARDA's help to rebuild the store. And shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Iraqi scientists sent a 'black box' across the border to ICARDA containing copies of the country's seed stocks. The action was timely, as Iraq's seed bank, in the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, was looted and destroyed during the insurgency. ICARDA plans to use the contents of the box to help regenerate Iraqi farming.
The US government has always been a generous financial supporter of the centre's activities.
[ We recommend ] more support be given to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international fund to build more gene banks around the world and to improve the conditions of existing ones. The trust was set up jointly by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. It says it needs an endowment of $260 million to safeguard seeds used in world agriculture and to improve the condition of the gene banks where they are stored.

The world's gene banks are in a parlous state, as a new report ("Safeguarding the future of US agriculture") published jointly by the US Department of Agriculture and the University of California makes clear. Of the 1,460 gene banks around the world, only 35 meet international standards for long-term storage. These include the gene banks of ICARDA and of the other Future Harvest Centres. The FAO, moreover, says that nearly-one fifth of the 5.4 million seeds stored in gene banks are degenerating.
The US government is currently spending more than $1 billion per week on military operations in Iraq. By comparison, a $260-million endowment is a small price to pay to conserve the world's agricultural heritage and to secure the future food supply of the United States and the rest of the world.

Of course it's a bit simplistic to say "the US spends X on Iraq, so should spend Y (a small fraction of X) on our favourite worthy cause", because there is only one Iraq and there are zillions of worthy causes. The Bush administration went to war in Iraq as part of a PR exercise to make itself look good (pity it's not gone very well). And as any government knows, when you are spending taxpayer money, you can never spend too much when it comes to PR on your own behalf. And, more seriously, it should not just be the Americans who fund these seed banks, the entire world obviously should (that's why it's called the "United Nations"), including rich Europe.

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