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MARCH 2009



Frozen seeds and food security
M.S. Swaminathan

The loss of every gene and species limits our future options. Fortunately, Norway has created a Noah’s ark in the form of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Lying 78 degrees north, the Norwegian village of Longyearbyen on Svalbard island is the farthest one can travel on a commercial flight to the North Pole. On February 26, 2008, a Global Seed Vault was opened here to preserve a representative sample of the genetic diversity in crop plants. In the middle of an ice mountain, a 120-metre tunnel has been chiselled out of solid stone leading to three vaults that can store 4.5 million varieties. This capacity is sufficient to protect all the diversity that exists and what is likely to arise in the future. The vaults are in permafrost conditions where the natural temperature is minus 4 degrees C round the year. This has been further lowered to minus 18 degrees, the optimal temperature for long-term seed viability.

The Global Seed Vault is owned by the Norwegian Government, but managed jointly by the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre. The seeds are stored under “black box condition,” meaning that the storage boxes remain the property of the institution which sent them and can be opened only with the depositor’s permission, avoiding conflicts relating to intellectual property rights. On the first anniversary of this unique Gene Bank, Norway organised at Svalbard in February a seminar on “Frozen Seeds in a Frozen Mountain: Feeding a Warming World,” where I delivered a lecture on “Freezing Seeds: A Humanitarian Issue?”

In my presidential address on “Genetic Conservation: Microbes to Man” delivered at the XV International Congress of Genetics in New Delhi in December 1983, I pleaded for international cooperative efforts to foster a conservation continuum. The starting point of the continuum should be in situ on-farm conservation of land races by farm families in their own fields to help conserve intra-specific variability, which is an invaluable asset in crop improvement. For example, thanks largely to the efforts of farm and tribal women, there are now over 125,000 strains of rice that can grow from below sea level to over 2,000-m-high mountainous conditions. Rice grows in upland rainfed areas as well as in flood-prone areas. India has instituted a Genome Saviour Award to accord social recognition and economic reward to the primary conservers for whom conservation is both a way of life and the principal means of food, health and livelihood security.

At the end-point of the conservation continuum, I recommended the creation of facilities for long-term seed storage under permafrost conditions. Normal cryogenic gene banks are expensive to run due to electricity costs. The operational cost can be brought down when seeds are stored under permafrost conditions. The Svalbard Vault is such a facility. The conservation continuum envisaged in my 1983 address is thus complete. Such an integrated conservation system involves rural and tribal women and men on the one hand, and environmental scientists and engineers on the other.

There is a vital difference between in situ on-farm conservation by tribal and rural families and cryogenic preservation under permafrost conditions. On-farm conservation promotes not only preservation but evolution through genetic recombination and natural and human selection. Keeping seeds under cold storage helps preserve them for future use but does not permit evolution. Any effective national genetic conservation system should include measures that can foster genetic evolution and selection, and ex situ cryogenic preservation in gene banks.

Genetic erosion caused largely by loss of habitat and altered land use and agronomic practice is extensive. The loss of every gene and species limits future food security options, particularly at a time when climate change is presenting new challenges such as changes in temperature and precipitation, frequent floods and coastal storms and rise in sea levels. Over 20 years ago, the late Dr. S K Sinha and I showed that a one-degree rise in mean temperature may reduce the duration of the wheat crop in Punjab by a week. This will reduce yield by nearly 400 kg per hectare. Since wheat yield is highly influenced by the night temperature that prevails during the grain ripening phase, higher temperatures will have a disastrous effect on productivity and production.

Recombinant DNA technology provides opportunities to move genes across sexual barriers and create novel genetic combinations. This is why the preservation of at least a small seed sample of existing variability in long-term storage structures as in Svalbard assumes urgency. For example, mangrove species provide genes to develop crop varieties with salinity tolerance. Transgenic rice strains have been developed by scientists of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), Chennai. Deep-water rice varieties provide opportunities to grow crops in flood-prone areas in the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Regional cooperation in this area, as for example among India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, will benefit all of them.

An example of effective regional cooperation is provided by the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) located at Alnarp in Sweden. It is responsible for the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources of farm animals and plants that are of importance to agriculture, horticulture and forestry. NordGen was established on January 1, 2008, merging the Nordic Gene Banks for plants and for farm animals and the Nordic Council for forest reproductive material.

We also need new genes to ensure the security of crop yields under conditions of invasion by transboundary pests. The Ug 99 strain of stem rust of wheat from Uganda is likely to damage the wheat crop unless steps are taken to identify genes for resistance to this rust fungus. Our scientists have identified such wheat varieties. Genes for tolerance to drought are available in wild plants such as Prosopis juliflora. These have been transferred by MSSRF scientists to rice and tobacco. Thus, genetic variability is the feedstock for the biotechnology industry. The Herbal Biovalley under development in Orissa’s Koraput region is designed to integrate biodiversity, biotechnology and business to mutually reinforce conservation and commercialisation.

There is a need to strengthen our infrastructure for the conservation and sustainable and equitable use of plant and animal genetic resources. The outbreak of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza caused loss of genetic material in poultry in Maharashtra, West Bengal and Assam due to the culling of native breeds. I have suggested an offshore quarantine facility in one of the uninhabited Lakshadweep islands, which could provide opportunities to test native poultry genetic strains for resistance to invasive alien species. The National Commission on Farmers recommended a National Biosecurity System to prevent harm from transboundary pests and diseases. Eternal vigilance is the price of stable agriculture: the sooner we establish an effective biosecurity system the greater will be the chances of avoiding pandemics.

Food at affordable prices is a prerequisite for peace and social security. Awareness of the importance of biodiversity for food, health and livelihood security is crucial. Anthropogenically induced climate change is likely to become the most harmful catastrophe affecting human security and well-being. In Svalbard, Norway has created a Noah’s ark to serve as a safety net for food security in an era of global warming and climate change. Biodiversity for all and forever should be the bottom line of our conservation ethics. Genetic literacy is essential to stimulate public and political interest in genetic resources conservation. The MSSRF started Genome Clubs in schools for this purpose a decade ago, which led to the formation of DNA Clubs in schools with support from the Department of Biotechnology.

India has a Plant Variety Protection and Farmers’ Rights’ Act and a Biodiversity Act to ensure that genetic material is conserved with the involvement of panchayats and local communities. It has long-term seed storage facilities for plant varieties at the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in New Delhi, and has National Bureaus for the conservation of animal, fish and forest genetic resources. India is thus in a position to promote a conservation continuum.

(Professor M.S. Swaminathan is a member of the Rajya Sabha and Chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai.)

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