San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Seed archive protects 11,400 plant species

Crop specialists from all over the world are joining together with a common and serious mission: to safely store original seed samples in order to protect plant species’ genetic information, should a natural or man-made disaster strike, or should a species somehow be eliminated by the spread of genetically modified seeds.

The challenge is big but the reward is even greater. Scientists know that protecting the genetic heritage of seeds can help farmers recover from worst-case scenarios, such as war, floods, drought and other disasters. It will also help secure the global food supply.

A regional effort, based in Costa Rica, is underway to do just that. The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), an international organization that encourages seeds’ protection, and a group of seven scientists from the Costa Rican-based Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), located in the Caribbean-slope town of Turrialba, are working to update and expand a natural seed archive that has been under their custody for several decades.

Through a process named regeneration, CATIE experts are taking seed samples out of storage and growing them to produce new seeds to rejuvenate the collection.

The process is timely, as germination capacities of stored seeds begin to diminish after 30 years, even though they are stored at -17 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in closely monitored facilities.

Once the new samples are gathered, CATIE will keep a set and send others to several seed banks in other countries, depending on the species: maize is sent mainly to Mexico and beans to storage facilities in Colombia, for example.

At other facilities, seed samples serve as a backup to those stored at CATIE.

“Isolating these species samples allows scientists to keep non-modified versions of seeds that could provide some sort of restoration point in case other seeds in the market become modified and somehow turn out to be unhealthy,” said William Solano, who runs the regeneration project at CATIE.

CATIE staff will also file a third set of samples to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the arctic zone of Norway, the biggest seed vault ever built.

“It is critical to protect as much variety as possible in the crops that sustain the Americas,” Solano said. “Many of the crops we grow, the same ones that allowed the Maya and Aztecs to expand and thrive, have been cultivated in this region for thousands of years and the yield potential that they show today is strongly tied to their genetic diversity.”

Although the project started in 2008, GCDT has only now made news of their efforts public. One reason the group decided to partner with CATIE is to help protect the Costa Rican organization’s vast seed collection, which could be threatened by the Turrialba Volcano, which recently rumbled back to life (TT, Dec. 7, 2007; Feb. 29, 2008). CATIE stores 11,400 different seeds, including the most diverse specimens of Arabica coffee, which they obtained 40 years ago from Ethiopia and other east African countries.

Those beans, as well as seeds from palm, peach, cacao, guava and other tropical species, need to be preserved on actual plants, because they don’t tolerate low temperatures. In case of volcanic activity, toxic ashes could kill the crops by affecting their photosynthesis.

“Many people think of places like Costa Rica in terms of the rich biodiversity of its tropical forests, but equally valuable is the stunning diversity of crop varieties in this region and their contribution to food security worldwide,” said Cary Fowler, GCDT’s executive director. “We should be working just as hard to protect the diversity in agriculture, which directly sustains us, as we do to protect diversity in any other vulnerable ecosystem.”

The project is funded mainly by the GCDT, the world’s leading organization in the field of seed protection. In Costa Rica the plan will require an investment of approximately $300,000.

The seed storage and regeneration work in Latin America is part of a worldwide effort that includes 88 countries. GCDT has partnered with 131 other agencies across the globe to rescue, regenerate and evaluate endangered crop collections.

 “We commit our lives to this kind of projects to guarantee our future generations survival. If by any reason the world faces a huge calamity, our collections will allow life to be resumed easily,” said Solano.

Not everyone is convinced, however, that seed banks are a productive solution to issues related to climate change and genetically modified seeds. According to Fabián Pacheco, Costa Rica’s representative to the Network for a Latin America Free of Transgenics, isolating seeds in seed banks likely won’t help them survive climate changes once removed from storage. The only way to protect the public from transgenic crops is to ban them definitively, said Pacheco.

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