THE IMPORTANCE of the world gene bank system may not be front of mind for the average farmer, but when the system is needed the results can be massive.
Tim Fischer, chairman of The Crop Trust, a body set up in 2004 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to promote diversity among the world’s food crops, said having a collegiate seed sharing system allowing researchers across the globe access to genetic material was critical.
“In Thailand recently there was a disease outbreak which threatened the cassava industry, but the material for resistance for the disease was found in Colombia, which has helped the Thais out tremendously,” Mr Fischer said at a recent Rural Press Club of Victoria function in Horsham.
While cassava may seem obscure to Australian ears, Tony Gregson, a board member of the Crawford Fund, an Australian organisation dedicated to international agricultural research said there were also examples of a wide genetic pool helping the wheat industry.
“We all remember the fears about the new strain of rust, Ug 99 and how if that had got to India it could have wiped out half the crop there and the fears there were for it coming to Australia, well breeders searched for some resistance and found some,” Dr Gregson said.
Secretary of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Kent Nnadozie, said gene banks played a critical role in retaining plant diversity.
“At present we have five crops providing 60 per cent of the world’s calories and that is a dangerous place to be,” Mr Nnadozie said.
“If a virus comes for a crop it can be devastating without the necessary diversity to help search for some resistance to the particular problem.”
Mr Fischer said he hoped gene banks would help stop the flow of the loss of genetic plant diversity.
“At present I would say it is around 11.56 in terms of the clock regarding plant diversity.
“We’ve gone from seven thousands plants to just 150 basically supporting the food needs of the world in the 21st century.”
“You look at rice in China and there is 50pc of the genetic diversity gone, in the US 90pc of the diversity of its vegetables have gone, which makes gene banks so important.”
“A concept like the world seed vault in Svalbard (Norway) is one of the wisest investments for the world.”
And the gene bank experts said it was critical that material was shared.
“The ICARDA (International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas) experience where they drew down on material they deposited into Svalbard after their facilities in Syria were destroyed,” said Sally Norton, Australian Grains Genebank.
Dr Gregson said it was not just facilities in areas of geo-political concern that needed to back up their resources.
“You look at Horsham, it seems like the safest spot in the world, yet just before the Australian Grains Genebank was built we had the Remlaw fires that went right near where the facility stands now, it shows you need to back things up.”
Mr Fischer said the genetic material stored in seed banks was of equal benefit to those in developed countries with mechanized agriculture or those still working with subsidence farming.
“We’ve see Peru recently catalog a load of species of potatoes, that material will be available for use for farmers in Tasmania or in the Orange – Bathurst area in NSW or for farmers in the Kingdom of Bhutan.”