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Plant Genebanks: Food Security

Geoffrey C. Hawtin and Jeremy Cherfas


Genebanks are like an insurance policy for the future of agriculture, for they:

  • conserve the diversity of plant species
  • offer resources for breeding of hardier crop varieties
  • provide food solutions in times of disaster
  • safeguard food supplies for future generations

April 2003

Genetic Resource Center personnel inspect shelves of rice germplasm in a genebank. Photo: International Rice Research Institute.

They sit, on shelves, in drawers, stacked in massive walk-in refrigerators. In paper bags, metal canisters, and aluminum foil pouches. Some live brief lives in glass test tubes under artificial lights. Others are all but immortal, bathed in liquid nitrogen at 196 degrees below freezing. A few take their chances in wide-open spaces.

Plant genebanks aim to safely conserve plant diversity.

They are the deposits in the world’s plant genebanks, living samples of the plants that humanity depends on, as precious as life itself. The simple word genebank covers many possibilities, from massive collections stored in elaborate buildings to a simple field of a few labeled plants. Genebanks are ex situ collections. That is, they comprise samples stored off site, away from the environments in which they naturally grow. The primary purpose of all genebanks is the safe conservation of plant diversity. For example:

Over 100,000 rice varieties are stored in genebanks.
  • It may be the diversity of a single species and its wild relatives, for example the 100,000 or more samples of rice and its relatives, gathered from around the world and maintained by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
  • Or it could be a small collection of a few locally important fruit trees, like those being assembled by schoolchildren in Sarawalk, Borneo.
The Russian N.I. Vavilov pioneered plant genetic collections.

It is impossible to say exactly when the world’s plant genetic resources collections began: people have been collecting and conserving plants in botanical gardens for many hundreds of years. The greatest pioneer of the modern era was the Russian Academician Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov (1887-1943). In a series of extraordinary and intrepid expeditions, mainly between 1916 and 1933, Vavilov and his many disciples collected more than 250,000 plant accessions from around the world. Vavilov fell foul of Stalin’s regime but his name has long been properly honored in the N. I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry (VIR) in St Petersburg, which houses one of the world’s most important genebanks.

Globally, genebanks maintain millions of plant samples.

Today, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ (FAO) World Information and Early Warning System on Plant Genetic Resources (WIEWS) lists about

  • 1,460 genebanks worldwide
  • including 465 in Europe, 468 in the Americas, and 298 in Asia

Jeremy Cherfas, Ph.D., is a biologist, science writer, and broadcaster with an involvement in several organizations, including the Documentation, Information And Training Group for IPGRI headquarters, Italy, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council of the UK, and Elm Farm Research Centre, UK. His books include The Hunting of the Whale: A Tragedy That Must End (1990), Seed Saver’s Handbook (1996), and Essential Science: Human Genome (2002, with John Gibbon).

Plant Genebanks: Food Security

BioScience Article

“A Century of Crop Improvement: From Vavilov to Biotechnology.”
In this May 2009 article, BioScience author, Carol Auer, reviews two books that present very different stories about crop improvement over the last century; however, they explore similar themes, such as the role of science in food security, the concept of food democracy, the role of government in food production, and the importance of public trust in agriculture. Free to read.

Bioversity International (formerly IPGRI)

“Bioversity is the world’s largest international research organization dedicated solely to the conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity.”

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)

“FAO is one of the largest specialized agencies in the United Nations system …and has worked to alleviate poverty and hunger by promoting agricultural development, improved nutrition, and the pursuit of food security.”

Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)

“CGIAR is an association of public and private members supporting a system of 16 Future Harvest Centers that work in more than 100 countries to mobilize cutting-edge science to reduce hunger and poverty, improve human nutrition and health, and protect the environment.”

The Global Diversity Trust

An activist site with information about the importance of plant genebanks.

Gene Conserve

“An electronic journal devoted to conservation of crop genetic resources with emphasis on cassava.”

Local Harvest

Here is a way for the food buying public in the U.S. to create a relationship with a farm and to receive a weekly basket of produce. Click on the map to find a participating farm in your area.

Visit a botanical garden

Botanique is “a portal to over 2400 botanical gardens, arboreta, and nature sites” in Canada and the United States. Visit and learn more about plants and their benefits. original lesson

This lesson has been written by a science educator to specifically accompany the above article. It includes article content and extension questions, as well as activity handouts for different grade levels.

Lesson Title: Maintaining Plant Genebanks
Levels: high school - undergraduate
Summary: This lesson explores the benefits and problems of maintaining plant genebanks globally. Students can plan a genebank or agricultural cryopreservation business venture, write a biography about a famous botanist, present views at a genebank symposium for developing nations… and more!

Download/view lesson. (To open the lesson’s PDF file, you need Adobe Acrobat Reader free software.)

Lessons for middle school

The following links will take you to middle school lessons available on other web sites:

Useful links for educators

  • » APSnet Education Center
    The APSnet Education Center is free and has sections for K-12, Introductory and Advanced Plant Pathology, which include materials with broad applications in biology and microbiology. The K-12 section includes monthly “News and Views” and complete lab exercises.

Useful links for student research

In addition to the links in the “learn more” section above:

General References:

  • » Cooper H.D., C. Spillane and T. Hodgkin. 2001. Broadening the Genetic Base of Crop Production. CABI (Cab International ), FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations), GRST (Genetic Resources Science and Technology Group), IPGRI (International Plant Genetic Resources Institute).
  • » Engelmann, Florent and Hiroko Takagi, ed. 2000. “Cryopreservation of tropical plant germplasm: current research progress and application.” Proceedings of the JIRCAS/IPGRI Joint International Workshop, Tsukuba, Japan, 20-23 October 1998. International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, pub.
  • » Engels J.M.M., et al. 2002. Managing Plant Genetic Diversity. The proceedings of the conference on Science and Technology for Managing Plant Genetic Diversity in the 21st Century. Pub. By GRST (Genetic Resources Science and Technology Group), IPGRI (International Plant Genetic Resources Institute).
  • » Johnson R.C., T. Hodgkin (eds.) Core collections for today and tomorrow. 1999. GRST (Genetic Resources Science and Technology Group).
  • » Richards, Paul and Guido Ruivenkamp. 2001. “Seeds and survival: crop genetic resources in war and reconstruction in Africa.” A report commissioned by the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI) and the Joint Working Group on Technology and Agrarian Development, Agricultural University, Wageningen. Revised version.
  • » Vavilov, N.I. 1996. Five Continents. IPGRI (International Plant Genetic Resources Institute).


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