Editor’s Note: AgFunderNews caught up with Cierra Martin and Hannes Dempewolf of The Crop Trust, an international organization working to safeguard crop diversity forever, to find out more about its work, how it uses technology, and its fundraising initiative.
What is the Crop Trust?
The Crop Trust was established by the CGIAR and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2004 to help build and fund a cost-effective, rational and global system of crop diversity for food security worldwide.
This system is based on three pillars: 1) international crop collections, 2) national and regional collections of most importance for food security and 3) the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the final back-up of the world’s crop collections.
Our job at the Crop Trust is to ensure that these collections are securely funded, forever, through the Crop Trust endowment fund and held to international quality standards. We provide support for the efficient management of these collections and make sure that this material is not only protected but accessible and available.
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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is located in Norway, is the last chance backup facility for the world’s crop diversity and currently holds more than 830,000 crop varieties from nearly every country in the world. The vault aims to ensure that our biodiversity stores are not at risk from factors that affect genebanks around the world such as a lack of secure funding, natural disasters — think typhoon or fire –, or even civil conflicts like war. The vault ensures that even if disaster strikes, this material that’s so critically important for the world’s food supply, is not lost forever.
How much are you targeting for the endowment fund and how much have you raised so far?
The endowment is targeting $850 million overall and we have secured over $300 million of support to date with pledges from a range of foundations, governments, corporations, and international organizations. We recently held a Pledging Conference in Washington DC in April which helped us to double the size of the fund to just over $300 million — plus nearly $25 million more in pledges of other support. This conference also opened the door to potential new partnerships with organizations and private corporations like World Coffee Research and DuPont Pioneer.
Over the next few years, we aim to strengthen our private sector outreach and establish more public-private partnerships. Several private organizations depend so heavily on crop diversity for their own work – such as seed companies – so they already support our mission. However, we still need to broaden our base of support and strengthen our visibility in the private sector to ensure that private entities can better understand how crucial our mission is for a food secure world and how the only way we can succeed is if private industry engages more in the global effort to secure the biological foundation of agriculture, which is crop diversity. The Crop Trust is the only funding mechanism ensuring this diversity is maintained forever.
How does the Crop Trust use technology to help in its task?
There are a lot of ways technology can contribute to a more efficient and effective storage of seeds and genetic diversity. One example is the cryopreservation of crops that cannot be stored as seeds. Take potatoes for example. Potatoes are not conserved through seed but need to be conserved as small plantlets in tissue culture. To provide an effective safety back-up for such collections, it is necessary to introduce them into cryopreservation, since the use of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault only stores seed. Several genebanks around the world also use robotics and an automated barcoding system to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations.
Cutting-edge genomics and phenomics technologies also play a major role in our effort to better understand the true value of the genetic resources that lie conserved in the world’s genebanks. Several projects and programs that we either directly support, or we are affiliated with, are making use of such technologies. The Div Seek initiative is an example of a group we’re working with that’s making a concerted effort in this regard.
What projects are involved in?
The Crop Trust does shorter-term, targeting project work to address gaps in the global system for ex-situ conservation, and one example is the Crop Wild Relatives Project, which is looking at collecting, conserving and using wild plants species — the wild relatives of our domesticated crops — for crop improvement. This project is being funded by the Norwegian government and we have partnered with the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, United Kingdom, on this. In this project, we are supporting researchers from around the world in their efforts to collect material from wild species, conserve them in gene banks, and introduce them into pre-breeding programs, using genomic and phenomics technologies amongst other more traditional methods. The whole program is under theme ‘Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change’, since we think the diversity found in these wild relatives of crops can play an important role in helping to adapt our main agricultural crops to a changing climate.
Another project we’ve worked on in the pas was carried out with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Grains Research and Development Corporation. It worked to allow us to safeguard and safety-duplicate nearly 80,000 crop varieties that were threatened and would have otherwise been lost. This was probably one of the largest biological rescue operations ever undertaken.
What are the main threats to crop biodiversity on the planet? And does the Crop Trust support any particular methods of farming?
Crop diversity is under threat from a wide range of causes. One major factor is what scientists call ‘genetic erosion’, which can be caused by changes in cultivation practices or cultural shifts in what people eat and therefore what kind of crops they grow. Climate change also poses a threat to crop diversity, since to adapt to a changing environment, farmers have to change what kind of varieties and crops they grow. The wild relatives of crops are threatened in the wild by a whole set of additional threats such as land-use changes, pollution, deforestration, and also climate change – this is the reason why our project on crop wild relatives was so important.
Our job is to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity to anyone who wants to use it. We take this universal availability of crop diversity very seriously and therefore do not take a stance on supporting any particular method of farming or breeding.
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