by GRAIN | 20 Apr 1991


We are heading toward a frightening crossroads. The so-called international plant genetic resources community has spent the past 20 years putting together a world network of colossal, centralised "base collections" for major international crops: rice, wheat, maize, potatoes, pulses. Big food in big refrigerators in a couple of locations across the mighty globe: this is called food security. NGOs have all this time been critical of the ill-founded bases of the system: its technical shortcomings, political biases, unaccountability, mismanaged control and the sheer danger of dumping your eggs into one solitary and fragile basket. Without resolving any of those problems, the genebanks are now in the process of shifting strategy away from the failed mega-collections toward a sub-system of isolated and potentially arbitrary "crop networks" and "core collections" with perhaps even more dreadful consequences.


Just over two decades ago, a small group of sharp-sighted people began desperately figuring out how to replace a nightmare with a dream. The nightmare was "genetic erosion" - more truthfully a genetic and cultural holocaust. In the 1960s, the seeds of the Green Revolution were hurling through the very hubs of plant genetic diversity for our major food crops: the farmers ' fields of Asia, Latin America and Africa. Literally overnight, thousands of valuable landraces that had been developed, cultivated and preserved by local communities were lost to the promised high yields of a few superstar seeds. The sharp-sighted few realised that the loss of these unique materials spelled disaster for the future of world plant breeding and food production.

The dream was to create a coherent and operational genetic conservation system to safeguard what was termed "genetic resources". But the "how" raised a lot of conflict. The initial action was centred within and around the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO): conferences, studies, various panels, recommendations and surveys. What emerged was the identification of crop gene pools and innovative methodologies for salvaging, conserving and utilising the diversity under growing threat. By the late 1960s, a "school of thought" was solidifying a first global response to the crisis: regional genetic resources centres. The centres would have base collections, for long term security, with a series of associated active collections for immediate innovation in crop breeding and food production. Regional research and breeding institutes by definition, the centres would be controlled by local governments to serve common agro-ecological particularities and independent development strategies.

The regional centres approach was crystallised by the early 1970s in the legendary "Beltsville Report", prepared by Sir Otto Frankel for the recently established Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The report was presented to a meeting in Beltsville, Maryland, not too far a drive from the CGIAR's residence within the World Bank. In it, Frankel proposed the establishment of nine distinct regional genetic resources centres strategically located in the heartlands of crop genetic variation across the world. The proposal was rejected as being technically too ambitious and politically uncertain. Instead, the CGIAR's Technical Advisory Committee revised the recommendations and created the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), in the form and spirit of the other Green Revolution institutes.

From the mid-1970s on, the leadership and control over germplasm collecting missions and the establishment of a global conservation system were entrusted in the hands of IBPGR - that is, by its financial donors. The emphasis was on collecting farmers ' landraces of the most economically important crops and putting them for keeping in long-term cold stores. Thus emerged the idea of an "IBPGR global network of base collections". Fifteen years and millions of dollars went into setting up these politically and technically isolated, self-contained, self-governed islands of genetic resources. At last count there were at least half a million seed samples in about 40 base collections around the world - no small feat.

But here come the nightmares again. Today, there are altogether about 3.3 million seed samples locked up in some 700 collections held by over 100 countries and we - or they, starting with IBPGR - know essentially nothing about them. Virtually no one is sure whether they are viable, available, what they contain or what they are useful for. Half the samples are guessed to be duplicates of each other and many of them are probably dying. The result, of course, is that this so-called treasure chest of resources is hardly being used by plant breeders or reaching farmers. Meanwhile the erosion in the fields goes on unabated. Food security?

The criticism of this strategy was somehow slow in coming, largely due to the lack of transparency veiling the whole operation. To be brief, we just sum up the most outrageous problems:

• Collecting priorities and sampling strategies (imbalance between major and minor crops, lack of ecogeographic surveys, little understanding of patterns of diversity, sloppy sampling...)

• Little interaction between the Board's directions and the national programmes (biased and patronising approach toward governments and people)

• Designation of the base collections (why and how they were selected)

• Maintenance of collections (numerous technical failings, many samples dead or dying)

• Under-utilisation of the material (for lack of data, evaluation and characterisation, availability of viable seed)

With the mega-banks being increasingly viewed as mega-morgues, the idea is now to chop them up and create "core collections" within crop-by-crop networks. IBPGR puts it this way: "After leading a highly successful campaign to safeguard the genetic diversity of the Earth's major food crops, IBPGR is addressing a new challenge: to ensure that crop plant germplasm now stored across the globe is put to full use." This sounds promising, but if it works, it would address only the last point in the major headache list above. All the others, political and technical, seem to be dismissed and packed away as "a highly successful campaign".

The breaking point

We are now at the breaking point. Some of the main movers in today's "international genetic resources community" are loudly advocating a whole new strategy that will override - and probably kill - the base collections approach, without necessarily solving any of the problems encountered in the past twenty years.

The latest ideology in formal germplasm conservation circles is focused on crop networks and core collections. In essence, the line of thinking goes something like the following. The assumption is that the setting up of base collections for major crops, and national programmes to use them, has been ineffective, costly and cumbersome. They see a need for a more flexible approach to cut down collections and make them more directly available to the immediate users (breeders) and ultimately the beneficiaries (farmers). The answer: networking among genebanks on a crop-by-crop basis. At the same time, the big, "generalist" base collections are under-used and thus useless. We now need "peak" collections, "sub" collections, segmented fractions of what is still in reality a deep, dark mess. As we will never get around to using the heap in the current banks, the idea is to whittle down the goods to a series of manageable "core collections".

For all intents and purposes, in the minds of its advocates, a "core collection" is 10% of a whole crop collection, amounting to no more than 3,000 accessions for any given species. This 10% is supposed to represent over 70% of the alleles (gene components) of the whole batch of varieties. In plain terms, this means they assume you can sift out one-tenth of an entire crop in storage and end up with the greatest and most practical stock of genetic diversity found in that species. Of course, one major problem to solve is confirming the seemingly arbitrary and certainly scary 10% rule of thumb. Another is what you do with the non-"core" mess, which is now pejoratively called the "reserve" collection. Common sense, especially in these times of budget cuts, would lead anyone to believe that it is left to whither, if not to be simply discarded.

Hence some formidable dangers of losing precious materials and restricting the ultimate value of what remains. It looks like we are starting from blindness and moving into further blindness. Against the untenable megabanks, the political barriers to cooperation, the funding constraints and so on, we now descend into the genetic resources sub-culture: sub-collections for sub-participants producing a sub-sum of resources for plant breeding and world food security.

This is even more serious than it sounds. In 1988, IBPGR launched a series of pilot crop networks: banana, rice, barley, maize, groundnut, medics and sweet potato, to which are now added coconut, okra and buckwheat. Additionally, there are international beet and pea crop networks in place since 1989. That same year, the European Cooperative Programme on Crop Genetic Resources (ECP/GR) became the European Cooperative Programme on Crop Genetic Resources Networks. European Community genebanks now argue that the only way to move forward is through "the establishment of collaborative crop networks whereby the major species of interest to European plant breeders are collected, maintained and investigated at designated centres throughout the Community."

To top it off, crop networks will most likely be the global conservation strategy of the "new" agency that will soon replace IBPGR, likely to be called the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI). While IBPGR figures it will take the next ten years to lay the foundations of the new strategy, the critical priorities and decisions are being forged right now. This rush-ahead perspective raised some doubts among IBPGR's Third External Programme and Management Review Panel, which concluded its scrutiny of the outgoing organisation last January. The Panel's report stresses that "the ultimate success of core collections will be dependent on the validation of the criteria on which they are based" - and that this confidence has yet to be established. But we can assume that the fervent momentum in favour of core collections and crop networks will only grow.

Activation or Dissolution?

Otto Frankel - the draftsman of the "Beltsville Report" mentioned earlier - put this very question on the table in a recent article on the new crop networks approach. While generally supportive of the idea, Frankel shares our concern over what will happen with the global base collections. "Dissolution of the global network (...) would weaken - perhaps even endanger - the future of genetic resources as a whole." But the risk of losing part of two decades of collecting efforts is only one of the dangers associated with the latest leap in germplasm conservation strategies. As pointed out above, virtually all of the technical problems with the current base collections approach remain unsolved. Also, crop networks pose a whole series of political questions. Although the writings of the crop networks proponents are all stressing the importance of national and regional centres, the end result might be the further marginalisation of the centres at those levels. It is definitely a "sub-culture" approach and that means that only a select group of institutions (and hence countries) will be part of the networks. Which ones? Who decides? How do the others relate to the elite core crew?

But perhaps most importantly, the crop network approach cuts off the informal sector from any serious participation in the game. More and more recognition has been achieved in many international fora of the role of farmers, local communities and their highly sophisticated farming systems in the conservation and further development of genetic diversity. As explained in another article in this Seedling, "Farmers ' Rights" is just one expression of this recognition. While others start devising strategies to further involve farmers in conservation and breeding, crop networks as now discussed clearly put the farmer exclusively at the receiving end again. This is not moving forward but turning the clock back again.

We need to take this questioning further. We need to expose the lack of credibility of the new strategy and the full implications in both technical and political terms. D.R. Marshall of the IBPGR Board of Trustees thinks that "since the previous philosophy has not led to effective action in 18 years there seems to be ample justification for fundamental changes".

We could not agree more. Both with the statement that IBPGR in its entire history has not led to "effective action" and with Marshall's opinion that there is a need for fundamental changes. We strongly doubt, however, whether the latest flight forward is the correct one.

Background and further reading:

A.H.D. Brown, "The Case for Core Collections", in Brown et al. (editors), The Use of Plant Genetic Resources, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 136-156.

IBPGR, "The Case for Crop Networks", in Geneflow, Number 1, Rome, June 1989, pp. 6-7.

D.R. Marshall, "Crop Genetic Resources: Current and Emerging Issues", in A.H.D. Brown et al., Plant Population Genetics, Breeding, and Genetic Resources, Sinauer Associates Publishers, 1989, pp. 367-388.

O.H. Frankel, "The Future of the Global Genetic Resources Network: Activation or Dissolution?", in Diversity, Vol. 6, Numbers 3 & 4, Washington, 1990, pp. 59-60.

Author: GRAIN