April 14, 2012

Seed banking, 1979–1994

Seed banks, such as the so-called "Doomsday Seed Vault" have been in the news recently, and I think will play a big role in crop adaptation to climate change. As part of the Embryo Project at ASU, I've been researching the history of seed banks. I posted about Seed Collection, 1990–1979 last week.

In the early twentieth century, scientists and agriculturalists collected plants in greenhouses, botanical gardens, and fields. When scientists became concerned over the loss of plant genetic diversity due to the expansion of a few agricultural crops around the mid-century, countries and organizations created seed banks for long-term seed storage. Beginning around 1979, environmental groups objected to the limited access to seed banks and questioned the propriety of the intellectual property of living organisms. Because many of the seed banks were located in the global North yet plants were collected largely from countries in the global South, this caused prolonged controversy over the uneven flow of genetic resources. This movement of the so-called “seed wars” and the movement for biodiversity conservation intersected in ways that shaped debates over plant genetic material and seed banking. Several significant shifts in governance occurred in 1994, leading to the creation of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute and a change in the governance of several important international seed banks. 

The International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR), headquartered in Rome, Italy, oversaw many, but not all, seed banks around the world. Through the efforts of the IBPGR and different countries, plant germplasm collection exploded in the 1970s and 1980s around the world. Plant germplasm is the genetic material required for plants to reproduce, mainly seeds, but also including clones, or cuttings. As of 1993, the IBPGR had conducted more than 400 collecting missions in over 100 countries. Seed banks also proliferated during thus time. As of 1979, twenty-five seed banks for long-term storage existed in the world. By 1995, 129 countries held a total of 1061 germplasm collections.

A 1979 book by Pat Roy Mooney, Seeds of the Earth: Private or Public Resource?, set off a movement of protest against seed banking. Beginning at a 1979 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) conference, representatives from developing countries expressed discontent with the seed banking regime, citing Mooney’s arguments that genes discovered in the global South would be patented in the North, and consequently, that the plant genetic material would no longer be available to farmers in the South. Mooney and others have made the distinction between “gene rich” countries in the global South and “gene poor” countries in the global South, which nonetheless possess more resources for seed collection and storage. Erna Bennet, a scientist and FAO employee, sympathized with these concerns and advocated of farmers’ access to germplasm from her earlier work with the FAO. As a proposed solution, Bennet spearheaded a campaign for the FAO, rather than the IBPGR, to gain jurisdiction of the global seed banks. Bennet resigned from the FAO in 1983 because of unresolved conflicts.

By 1981 the issue of seed banking, and the connection between intellectual property rights and conservation, became a global issue. Developing countries feared that germplasm collected in their countries would be stored in developed countries, such as the US, and that they would be denied access to the genetic material, prompting the phrase germplasm embargo. These countries called for the principle of free exchange of plant germplasm. In 1983 the FAO held a meeting that established the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, a voluntary, non-binding agreement, as well as an FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources. The International Undertaking would establish standards for the international collection and storage of plant genetic resources. The FAO believed that jurisdiction of international seed banks should be in the hands of a publicly accountable intergovernmental organization. The FAO was accountable to the United Nations, but the IBPGR and their institutional host, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) were accountable to their donors, including the World Bank. Thus the FAO attempted to establish a Global System on Plant Genetic Resources for food and agriculture that would ostensibly replace the IBPGR. The Global System would include not just seed banks, but also on-farm conservation efforts.

The collaboration between the CGIAR and FAO revealed tensions between the organizations’ missions. Tensions between the FAO and IBPGR, both still located in Rome, Italy, continued into the early 1990s. In 1991, the IBPGR became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), officially ratified by the Italian government in 1994, and part of the CGIAR network. Jurisdiction over the global system of seed banks was still unclear until the United Nations Convention for Biological Diversity in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 1994, jurisdiction of the CGIAR’s twelve gene banks was transferred to the FAO.

The decisions of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992 had consequences for plant genetic resource conservation. The CBD framework allowed legal rights over natural resources to their countries of origin. The CBD did not extend to existing seed banks, which were at the time under the auspices of the CGIAR network, but it set a precedent for international governance of genetic material, and left a gap for governance of seed banks. The Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) in 1994 further established international standards for trade of plant genetic materials. Over the next decade, the FAO developed an International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, widely adopted in 2002.

Seed banking allows long-term storage of plant germplasm, usually used for plant breeding experiments. To preserve germplasm, seed banks are kept at low temperatures and low moisture, which keeps the seed dry and stops samples from growing quickly. For long-term storage, seeds are stored in airtight vials at temperatures around -20 degrees C, and around 0 to -5 degrees C for medium-term storage. Thousands of seeds are stored for each plant variety. Samples can degrade over time, and especially in developing countries, the facilities may not be equipped for long-term storage. Most plants are stored as seed, but asexual or polyploidy crops such as potato, cassava and banana require different techniques for reproduction and storage. In the 1980s, seed banks experimented with techniques for storing these plants as tissue cultures, or “artificial seeds.” These varieties can also be propagated in test tubes for shorter-term storage. Cryopreservation, freezing seed in liquid nitrogen at extremely low temperatures, is another technique for long-term storage of plant material, but is not as widely used as it is in animal breeding and conservation.

Scientists often use the terms seed bank, gene bank, and germplasm collection interchangeably, although there are different techniques associated with storage of different plants and types of storage. Germplasm is all plant genetic material, which is limited to more than just seeds. Scholars Pistorius and Wijk assert that, in the 1980s, scientists began conceptualizing plant genetic diversity in term of individual genes rather than particular plants. The dominance of the term “gene bank” in scientific literature reflects this shift.


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