Alliance’s Colombia genebank hits conservation target with shipment to Svalbard

Alliance Director General, Juan Lucas Restrepo, joined 60 genebank representatives, the Prime Minister of Norway and several UN Sustainable Development Advocates at Svalbard to officially receive the shipment and consign it to the vault. Credit: Nordic Genetic Resource Center

The CGIAR genebank in Cali, Colombia, reached a conservation milestone in February with a shipment of safety duplicates of bean accessions to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

25 February, Svalbard Islands, Norway – The crates that arrived at the Global Seed Vault from Colombia were part of a record number of samples coming from around the world. By providing 904 bean accessions, the Cali genebank hit a CGIAR target for two back-up copies of 90 percent of the bank’s almost 38,000 bean accessions in two geographically distant locations. The other safety duplicates are at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico.

“This is the shipment that gets us over the finish line in terms of the CGIAR Genebank Platform’s performance target for safety duplication,” said Juan Lucas Restrepo, Director General of the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Restrepo joined 60 genebank representatives, the Prime Minister of Norway and several of the United Nations Sustainable Development Advocates at Svalbard on 25 February to officially receive the shipment and consign it to the vault.  The Seed Vault opens its doors a couple of times a year to receive deposits, with this February deposit expected to be the largest in its history with more than 60,000 new seed sample duplicates deposited by 35 genebanks. 

“Society needs to further acknowledge the huge importance of the efforts undertaken by ‘genebankers’ to safeguard agricultural biodiversity and ensure it can be used by current and future generations. Our food depends significantly on this,” said Restrepo.

The Svalbard Seed Vault is managed by the Nordic Genetic Resources Center, or NordGen, in close collaboration with the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Crop Trust.

Funding in perpetuity

Five large boxes of seeds were shipped from the Alliance genebank in Cali to the Seed Vault. Besides beans, the shipment included 366 accessions of tropical forages, comprising seeds of grasses, shrubs and trees consumed by livestock. Credit: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/S. Mattson

Colombian authorities inspected the shipment of five large boxes of seeds before dispatching them in a DHL truck for their five-day, seven-airport voyage to the so-called ‘doomsday’ vault, which is north of the Arctic Circle and about 10,000 km from the Alliance genebank in Colombia. Besides beans, the shipment included 366 accessions of tropical forages, comprising seeds of grasses, shrubs and trees consumed by livestock.

“The shipment marks the beginning of a historic year for the genebank,” said Peter Wenzl, the Genetic Resources Program Leader for the Colombia genebank, who expects the facility to reach all CGIAR performance targets this year.

More than 90 percent of bean, forage and cassava accessions (conserved in the form of seeds and in vitro plantlets, in the case of cassava) should be safety-duplicated and available for global distribution by year-end. Targets for data availability and operational standards should also be met in 2020.

Reaching these targets assures funding in perpetuity from the Crop Trust for genebank operations. “All this marks the end of a historical period for the genebank,” said Wenzl. “Now we’re entering the next phase.”

The Alliance’s other genebank, the International Musa Germplasm Transit Centre, is home to the world’s largest collection of banana germplasm. The collection, hosted at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium, contains more than 1,500 accessions of edible and wild species of banana kept in vitro under slow growth conditions at 16 °C.  For security, samples are also frozen to -196 °C, the temperature of liquid nitrogen, in a process called cryopreservation. This means that material can be preserved indefinitely and revived into full banana plants as needed.

The future is now

Svalbard archipelago, Norway – The Seed Vault is located deep inside a mountain under the permafrost on a remote island, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It is the permanent global fail-safe repository of more than one million seeds from the world’s crops. Credit: Crop Trust

Future Seeds, which will replace the current genebank building, is scheduled for completion this year and will help usher in the new research phase for the Alliance’s germplasm collections in Colombia.

The genebank’s initial priority was to build and conserve viable collections in perpetuity, so that they are available for current and future generations of scientists, farmers and consumers. Now that the collections are securely conserved for the long term, the genebank can start to shift its emphasis towards making accessions more accessible to users by enriching collections with actionable information. In this way, breeders and researchers can select accessions in a more targeted manner to develop nutrient-dense varieties in the face of changing climate conditions.

“Every time a new challenge pops up – say a new crop disease – we can go into the genebank and we usually find a solution,” said Wenzl. “But that’s reactive. Now we can become much more proactive and start mining the collection for useful traits using the best technologies available to do so at scale and in a cost-effective manner.”

The ‘digital genebank’ component of Future Seeds will be at the heart of these efforts.

“We can pretty much anticipate what’s coming in the next 20 years in terms of nutrition and climate change and focus on developing and diversifying crops for these scenarios,” he said. “That must happen within our planetary boundaries, of course, so we cannot forget about improving productivity and disease resistance at the same time.”

“Just because we are going to work towards encouraging a broader use of the collections we hold in trust, doesn’t mean that we are going to forget about conservation,” said Wenzl.

Future Seeds will have greater capacity than the current genebank, making it a possible destination for safety duplicates of other collections, from international or national genebanks or community seed banks. Located in the midst of a global biodiversity hotspot, Future Seeds is going to keep the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT at the vanguard of genetic resource conservation.


In collaboration with: Belgian Development CooperationBotanic Garden MeiseCrop TrustGIZKU Leuven.

This research is conducted as part of the CGIAR Genebank Platform and is supported by contributors to the CGIAR Trust Fund.

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