Securing crop diversity

For many years genetic resources have become a major topic of discussion. On the one hand, it has generally been accepted as a gift of nature that will be shared by all human beings. On the other hand, it has widely been believed that genetic resources are unique national resources and that every nation should keep its genetically unique crops secret. Established some ten years ago, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) is the worldwide response to the crisis afflicting the biological basis of human food supply and nutrition. The Crop Trust is working to build a global system to guarantee the conversation and availability of genetic diversity of all major agricultural food crops thus unleashing their potential and promoting their use forever. The German-based, organization was therefore created to provide long-term, sustainable funding for ex situ crop conversation in plant gene banks and to be sources through annual investment income from endowment funds. It is an independent international organization which exists to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide. It was established through a partnership between the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) acting through Bioversity International. Henok Reta of The Reporter caught up with Marie Haga, executive director of GCDT at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Addis Ababa for an exclusive interview regarding the works that are being done by GCDT. Haga has been executive director of the Trust since March, 2013, having previously been a board member and deputy chair. She had worked as a diplomat, senior politician in the Norwegian politics before joining GCDT. She has also published three books of which one is a novel and the rest are focused on Norwegian politics. Excerpts:

The Reporter: You were a politician who is now working in a very contentious sector. Can you say a few things about the sector?

Marie Haga: I don’t think this is a contentious sector despite some of the matters it has faced over time. I have a background in politics and I would say I’m still close to the politics in my country but this is a commitment I have made to focus on. In my political life I served as a member of the Norwegian Parliament from 2001-2009 prior to my positions in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and Foreign Ministry this indeed gave me a good opportunity to see the broader picture of genetic resources which as you have mentioned have a slight contention between the developed and the developing world. Usually, things could always have a political context that should be settled down in consistent diplomacy. And I think I have that experience to deal with matters related to genetic resources.

On the podium you said that it was an honor to speak before Professor Gebisa Ejeta, executive board member of GCDT and Ethiopia’s high-profile scientist in the field. Tell me more about his métier.

Yeah, I felt a great honor to speak a head of him at ILRI because he has been one of those prominent individuals in the area of crop diversity. And I think Ethiopia should be proud of this high-profile scientist who has devoted his entire life in researching and developing Ethiopian crops and their species. Indeed, he is a distinguished professor of plant breeding and genetics to win the 2009 World Food Prize Laureate and a recipient of National Medal of Honor from the president of Ethiopia. I therefore respect him very much and he deserves it. In fact, you have several other prominent scientists and researchers in this area such as Berhane Gebrekidan, Melaku Worede and Tewolde Gebreegziabher to mention some. So, you should feel honored for their eminent presence in developing, promoting and safeguarding your genetic resources.

How important is Ethiopia’s genetic resource to the rest of the world?

It has always been described as one of the world’s best or major crop resource for the diversity it has in plant species. In fact, it has also been recognized as an old civilization to preserve some of the resources of older generation. It is famously known as Abyssinian Crop Center of the Global Crop Diversity strands for its eminent resources from which numerous varieties have been discovered. It is one of the major Vavilovian centers of origin/diversity for several domesticated crops and their wild and weedy relatives. It is an important primary and secondary gene pool for many field crop species that are useful sources of germplasm for economic traits in general and sources of genes resistance to diseases and pests in particular. Ethiopia is also a primary gene center for field crops such as noug (Guizotia abyssinica), teff (Eragrostis teff) and the Ethiopian mustard (Brassica carinata). Besides, field crops such as barley, sorghum, durum wheat, finger millet, faba bean, linseed, sesame, safflower, chickpea, lentil, cowpea, fenugreek and grass pea have wide genetic diversity in Ethiopia too.

Despite its significance in the global crop diversity it has not been lived up to its title and vitality in the area of research and development of crops at all. What do you think is behind of this unparalleled context?

When looking at the country’s potential in becoming one of the world’s leading countries in crop research and development hub, it has not gone far. Maybe this is a result of less capacity in funding researches and probably insufficient focus on the resource. The country’s plant diversity of species is such a gift that only some countries could have enjoyed in human history. From the field crop diversity to medicinal plant diversity, the country is endowed with natural gifts. Ethiopia’s heterogeneous environmental conditions are favorable for diverse microorganisms. Ethiopia is rich in traditional microbial fermentation and preservation of foods and beverage. These valuable microbial genetic resources have not been sufficiently studied, documented, and conserved. Micro-organisms are of great value to mankind because they benefit agriculture, industry, medicine, and environment in various ways. Now, I see a better time is coming that the government and scientists are seemingly working hard to realize it. Hopefully it will become a major destination for research and development of crops worldwide when policies and strategies are working right to generate enough fund and commitments.

Why do many people have different views towards the gene banks set up in different part of the world? Some scientists in the developing world even put a plausible suspicion towards it?

I see it worthy at some point that some wrong attitudes may make people suspicious in dealing with the issue of species and crop diversity. On the other hand, when we look at some of the gene banks that are threatened by man made and natural problems then it may not make sense in having such attitude on the gene banks. Nevertheless, we must believe that the number of people on the planet is increasing fast while we are not coping with the amount of food we are producing to feed the world. So, sharing the species and developing the diversity of our natural resources is something we should accept for our survival. Biodiversity is a prerequisite to food security for sustainable development and our genetic resources are also a gift of nature to share with one another. I would also like to reflect on some of the important comments made by Professor Gebisa, who repeatedly acknowledged international and foreign governments and organizations particularly, the German government for supporting the projects and offering technical assistance in helping Ethiopia’s genetic resources preserved. I think this is a result of natural and universal understanding that genetic resources are universal although they are found and cultivated in a certain nation.

What are you doing to save the endangered gene banks across the world?

After I took office, I know a lot has been done in relocating those endangered gene banks. Crop genetic diversity — which is crucial for feeding humanity, for the environment and for sustainable development — is being lost at an alarming rate. Given the enormous interdependence of countries and generations on this genetic diversity, this loss raises critical socio-economic, ethical and political questions. The recent ratification of a binding international treaty, and the development of powerful new technologies to conserve and use of resources more effectively, have raised expectations that must now be fulfilled. As a result, we are making progress in relocating Aleppo Gene Bank, which is one of major gene banks, to Morocco and Jordan fearing the exacerbated crisis in Syria. The Fukushima nuclear disaster also damaged one of the word’s important gene banks. The loss of crop diversity on farms has direct impacts not only for farming families, but also for global agri-food system as a whole. Gene banks provide us a safe, cheap means to secure crop diversity and ensure that scientists have ready, convenient access to all the diversity they need to improve crops, in the service of farmers and consumers. Today, there are about 7.4 million accession conserved ex situ in over 1,750 collections worldwide and the large mega-diverse collections are managed by Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR) and recognized by an international treaty.

How do you see the contributions and activities being carried out by the Ethiopian gene bank collection?

A Plant Genetic Resources Center, Ethiopia (PGRC/E) was initially established in 1976 through a bilateral technical cooperation agreement between the governments of Ethiopia and Germany. The main objective was to rescue the country’s plant genetic resources from adverse impacts of various human activities and natural calamities and thereby, support crop improvement programs. In 1998, it was re-established as the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation and Research (IBCR) broadening its mandate and duties to implement Ethiopia’s obligation to the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). The gene bank in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia conserves about 19,000 accessions from over 1,000 species. This makes it one of the most diverse collections of forge grasses, legumes and fodder tree species held in any gene bank in the World, it includes the world’s major collection of African grasses and tropical highland forges as well. Moreover, the Addis Ababa ILRI’s gene bank holds a securely-conserved diverse collection of forage accession, and related information to make the country one of the major collections globally with an active engagement.

What do you say about the controversy that took place a few years ago when Teff – a popular national crop – was subjected to a patent right issue after a certain Dutch company developed it into a diverse product?

Actually I know little about this and I won’t be able to speak about this at full length. I know that Teff is a food grain endemic to the Ethiopian highlands, where it has been cultivated for several thousands of years. Rich in nutritional value, it is an important staple crop for Ethiopians. Since it is gluten-free, it is also interesting for markets in other parts of the world. Formulations in ABS agreements (Model Access and Benefit Sharing agreement), prohibiting the patenting of genetic resources, maybe easy to circumvent, and more sophisticated formulations should be chosen if this is to be avoided. In this regard, the GCDT is established by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) of the UN to secure and make available crop diversity for global food security and nutrition, I would say.

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