Photo: The Crop Trust

By now, the seed is at 18 degrees Celsius below zero. But special packaging and storage rooms keep it young and alive.

Getting to the Arctic Circle was not easy. The journey began on Tuesday, 4 October, at 10:30 am. After being transferred from Palmira to Bogotá and then Panama, the seed was supposed to travel on to Miami and next to Cincinnati in the USA. But then, when Hurricane Matthew blocked that route, the itinerary was changed to Panama-Madrid-Leipzig-Oslo. Finally, the seed was flown across the Arctic Ocean to Svalbard, a remote Norwegian island, its final destination.

The shipment couldn´t have received a more elaborate send-off. Its care-takers were anxious, because their precious cargo was entering the most important phase in its vegetative life: 2,623 accessions (samples) of common bean and 1,769 of tropical forages were about to become part of the genetic insurance for humanity´s future food supplies.

Daniel Debouck, leader of CIAT´s Genetic Resources Program, was in charge of the operation, confident that his team had taken all the necessary steps to ensure the seed leaving the Center´s germplasm bank was fully prepared for 30, 40, or even 50 years of storage in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also called the “Noah´s Arc” of seed.

CIAT had reason to be especially proud: With this latest shipment, the Center reached its goal of sending 90% of its bean and forages collections by 2016 for safekeeping in Norway. This was its commitment to the Crop Trust, an international organization that works to protect crop diversity and provides financial support for the world´s most important germplasm banks, including the one at CIAT.

In route to the bunker

The 12 blue boxes stamped with the CIAT logo held 4,392 neatly arranged, vacuum-packed bags made of  laminated aluminum foil. Each box was accompanied by a document, a sort of identify card, showing the name of the seed collection, accession number, country of origin, amount of seed, and year in which the material was regenerated.

The samples had undergone a rigorous process involving seed multiplication in the field, evaluation for physical purity, viability testing, seed health testing, and drying. The result is that just over 1.6 million new seeds are ready for planting, in case they´re needed because of a natural or man-made disaster.

This is the tenth set of backup seed samples that CIAT has sent to Svalbard over the last 8 years. The 54,473 bean and forage materials shipped from the Center reside within the Seed Vault, deep inside Platåberget  Mountain, where the seed can remain at the recommended temperature for weeks even without refrigeration.

Tight security

The figures

accessions of beans

accessions of tropical forages

Have been sent from CIAT for storage in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

According to Luis Guillermo Santos, coordinator of the Seed Conservation and Viability Laboratory, CIAT´s Genetic Resources Program makes backup copies of all the materials it periodically places in long-term storage. Since 2004, the Center has sent a copy of each of these materials every year to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico. Since 2008, when CIAT signed an agreement with Norway´s Ministry of Agriculture and Food, it has also sent a copy to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

“We conserve part of the plant genetic endowment of 141 countries around the world; the least we can do is protect the capital with which these countries have entrusted us by making back-up copies,” Debouck explained to Blanca Palomino, an officer with Colombia´s Antinarcotics Police, who asked him to open a bag of seed chosen at random during a routine check. It is routine but obligatory before the heavy boxes, together weighing 169 kilograms, are allowed to go through the Genetic Resources Program´s security door.

Also present was Claudia Vélez, of the Colombian Institute for Agriculture and Livestock (ICA), which issues the phytosanitary certificate for exported seed (ensuring that is free of insect pests and diseases) as well as Juan Pablo Sanín, with the air freight company handling all the logistical details involved in shipping the seed successfully to the Arctic Circle.

Within an hour after the Colombian authorities had begun processing the shipment, they had sealed each of the 24 blue boxes with yellow security tape. From them on, no one could open the boxes without the express authorization of CIAT.

The seed shipment reached Svalbard right on schedule. The Global Seed Vault is opened three times a year – this year in February, May, and October. Crop seed banks around the world have just these three opportunities to introduce new seed or replace seed already in storage.

“The duplicate seed at Svalbard is conserved under the same conditions we have at CIAT,” said Debouck. “If in the future, we observe a decline in the viability of a particular material (indicating that the seed is dying), we can replace it with fresh seed from Svalbard, thus avoiding the loss of a variety.”

Mission accomplished. The 4,392 materials are now held in the storage rooms at Svalbard, with no return ticket, and will remain there for at least the next 50 years.

A new and iconic germplasm bank

banco_germoplasma

With more than 67,000 accessions, CIAT safeguards the world´s largest collections of common bean and cassava, along with wild plants related to these crops, as well as tropical forages for livestock.

The Center conserves these materials under the terms of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

In the CIAT germplasm bank, which holds collections that are living and continuously changing, researchers not only conserve samples but also collect, characterize, regenerate, document, and distribute seed, which offers new options to improve the livelihoods of thousands of farmers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Now, the researchers´ dream is to have a new bank that not only applies the best science but also shares an important message about the vital importance of plant genetic resources for the future of humanity.

Peter Wenzl, assistant leader of CIAT´s Genetic Resources Program, said that “the new bank will provide a platform for better understanding the value and significance of the diversity we safeguard at the Center. We´ll have new technological options for revealing the genetic makeup of these materials and their potential for improving traits, such as drought tolerance, disease resistance, and nutritional quality. We have a wide range of diversity, but we need to take advantage of its potential in a systematic way through crop improvement.”

67.770 accessions of beans, cassava and forages, are safeguarded in the CIAT Germplasm Bank at Palmira, Colombia

6.643 accessions of cassava

37.987 accessions of of beans

23.140 accessions of forages

***

CIAT’s Genetic Resources Program has been supported by the Belgian Agency for Development in Cooperation (Administration Générale de la Coopération au Développement – AGCD). Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ), The European Union, the Crop Trust (formerly the Global Crop Diversity Trust), the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Swissaid, the United States Agency for International Development, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the World Bank.

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