In Seeds We Trust

Encounters / by Maywa Montenegro & Nikki Greenwood /

Because science won’t save us if biodiversity fails, a global effort is underway to collect and cache the genetic resources contained in seeds.

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For all the value that crop diversity represents, there is scant money around to support it. So several years ago, when Fowler learned that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had begun bankrolling projects related to agriculture and crop research, he sent an email to inquire. After receiving a “don’t call us, we’ll call you” sort of response, he put the thought aside. Then one day, the telephone rang. “It was the Gates Foundation,” he recalls. “The guy said, ‘Cary, we’d like to give you $20 million, maybe more.’” The Foundation requested two formal grant proposals: one for $20 million, one for $30 million, all to be spent in projects and research, not in endowment. “Bill doesn’t like to give money for endowments,” says Fowler. “Why should he take from his own endowment and put it in another?”

But the grant writing proved problematic. At the Diversity Trust, “we have a policy we take very seriously—we don’t pad budgets,” says Fowler. “And when we sat down and charted out all the projects we wanted to do, we realized that we could give them a $20 million proposal, and one for $22.5 million. We didn’t need any more, so we didn’t ask for it.”

The Gates Foundation was caught off guard. “They told me nobody had ever turned down that kind of grant money before,” says Fowler. A few weeks later, the Global Crop Diversity Trust was awarded $30 million—the $22.5 million grant it had requested and $7.5 million for the endowment.

With the funding from the Gates Foundation and other sources, Fowler’s team is now looking forward to a number of projects: Later this year, Bioversity International, with funding from the Trust, will launch the first part of a central information portal that will eventually link all gene repositories in the world.

Most gene banks today have some form of information system, says Fowler, but they can be a nightmare to navigate. The Polish one, for instance, uses an arcane computer platform, and it’s all in Polish. Moreover, because the databases are all disconnected from one other, plant breeders looking for germ plasm have to hunt for it gene bank by gene bank. “This will give them a global search engine,” says Fowler. “And by 2010, we hope to add an online ordering function. Researchers will be able to locate and request genes and have them delivered directly by mail.”

With technology set to transform the gene bank landscape, one might wonder why we couldn’t just use more technology on the plants themselves. Given the capacity of modern biotechnology to engineer traits into crops, why go through the hassle of saving a stockpile of seeds? “I’m not opposed to genetic engineering, but why should we engineer something we already have?” says Fowler. “It costs $4 a year to maintain a packet of wheat seeds. It may take 10 years and $100 million to insert a new gene into a crop.” Besides, he says, it’s not as though engineering circumvents the need for genetic raw material. Until the day that we are building the genes themselves from scratch, any improved crop—bred or engineered—will be a mash-up of existing species. In other words, if biodiversity fails, science won’t save us.

Fowler does, however, have enormous faith in science’s ability to leverage that biodiversity against our demise. On May 22, the Trust announced numerous new grant awards for scientists to begin combing the world’s gene banks for traits critical to climate-change adaptation. In Portugal and Angola, researchers will be looking for wheat varieties that can withstand high temperature and drought. In India the focus will be pearl millet, and in Sub-Saharan Africa, maize. Scientists in Texas, home to a billion-dollar sorghum industry, will analyze germ plasm for resistance to fungal diseases. “The natural traits in our crop gene banks represent millions of years of adaptation to a wide variety of climates,” says Fowler. “We’d be stupid to ignore what evolution—and 10,000 years of farming—has already given us. Quite frankly, it’s the only way we’re going to stay one step ahead of climate change.”

Originally published June 9, 2009

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