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Genebanks maintain high seed viability despite gaps in effective management

A review of the historical data from seven CGIAR genebanks confirms that high seed viability has been maintained for many decades. However, deviations from optimum management procedures were revealed as well as a failure to collect as much data as expected.

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A review of historical data from seven CGIAR gene banks confirms that it has managed to maintain the viability of the seeds despite inadequate management Photo: Colourbox

In short, seed genebanks save seeds - and the genes those seeds contain – conserving and distributing agrobiodiversity for use in research and breeding. The role of genebanks in underpinning global food security is recognized in target 2.5 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 2, to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”.

Along with colleagues from all over the globe, Fiona Hay from the Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University has collected and reviewed historical data from seven CGIAR centres in order to better understand the longevity of seeds in genebank storage for a diverse range of crops. The CGIAR collections include more than 700.000 seed accessions held in trust as global public goods. However, the role of the genebanks in contributing to food security can only be realized if the collections are effectively managed.

A huge gap in genebank data

The seven CGIAR centres included in the study are spread throughout the tropics, and the diversity they conserve is critical for research and breeding programs that can lead to improved crop varieties.

“This is especially important now with climate change. So, it is absolutely essential the genebanks ensure that the seeds and other plant material are kept viable for a long time,” say Fiona Hay.

Data from all seven centres were collected, sorted and validated.

“There was a huge amount of data, but the quality of the data was not always as good as we had expected, making it difficult for us to analyse the longevity of the seeds. Some of the genebanks were only able to provide results from their initial or latest germination tests, but couldn’t provide a series of data from sequential monitoring tests,” Fiona Hay explains.

The lack of data meant that for many of the crops, the researchers weren’t able to capture trends in seed viability over time.

New data management actions

The data was provided between 2013 and 2017, but covered seed lots that had been harvested as far back as the 1970s. Over the years, various data management systems were used by the genebanks, and even at the time the data was provided, the genebanks were using different information management systems.  

“This study has emphasized the importance of accurate recording of data in the genebanks, and the effective storage and then use of the data to drive genebank operations.” Fiona Hay says and notes that while it is clear that data gathering has improved over the years, none of the databases included all of the fields that are required to be able to do a reliable analysis of seed longevity.

The study evolved into the Seed Quality Management (SQM) activity of the CGIARs Genebank Platform. “This activity, which I have been leading, has included building up more scientific thinking in the genebanks, as well as research to address constraints in conservation and monitoring of seed accessions” adds Fiona Hay.

Long-term seed viability maintained despite data constraints

Despite the lack in data management, the study confirms that the genebanks are able to maintain high seed viability over long periods of time.

“Overall, it is a positive conclusion. There is now evidence that seed lots can retain high levels of viability for many years or decades,” Fiona Hay says.  

In order for genebanks to become more cost-effective, the researchers have proposed a reduction in the frequency of testing seeds. “For new samples of some species with high initial viability, it is not necessary to do monitoring checks every 5 or 10 years; rather, the first monitoring test may be carried out after 20 years. However, this only applies to new samples. For the old seed lots already in storage, testing will need to continue as usual,” Fiona Hay says.

Despite the constraints identified in this study, the study concludes that “seed genebanking, and specifically the overall framework of how collections should be stored and managed, remains the most effective way of ensuring the availability of viable crop germplasm for future generations as a means of contributing to global food security.”

Additional information

We strive to ensure that all our articles live up to the Danish universities' principles for good research communication (scroll down to find the English version on the web-site). Because of this the article will be supplemented with the following information:

Collaborators Department of Agroecology at Aarhus University, University of Reading (UK), Austrailian Grains Genebank (Australia), T.T. Chang Genetic Resources Center (Philippines), Global Crop Diversity Trust (Germany), Rice Biodiversity Center for Africa - AfricaRice (Cote d’Ivoire), International Center for Tropical Agriculture – CIAT (Colombia), International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas – ICARDA (Lebanon), International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics – ICRISAT (India), Genetic Resources Center – IITA (Nigeria), and World Agroforestry (Kenya). 

This study was undertaken as part of the Seed Quality Management (SQM) activity of the CGIAR Genebank Platform. We would like to thank all funders who have supported the CGIAR Genebanks over the last 4-5 decades. In particular, SQM received financial support in 2020 from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) commissioned and administered through the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) Fund for International Agricultural Research (FIA), grant number: 81235816.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare the following financial interests/personal relationships which may be considered as potential competing interests:

Fiona R. Hay reports financial support was provided by CGIAR. Charlotte Lusty reports financial support was provided by CGIAR. Fiona R. Hay reports a relationship with CGIAR that includes: consulting or advisory and travel reimbursement. Charlotte Lusty reports a relationship with CGIAR that includes: consulting or advisory and travel reimbursement. Corresponding author previously worked at a CGIAR center. Co-author manages the genebank platform but is employed by the Crop Trust (CL).

Read more The article "CGIAR genebank viability data level inconsistencies in seed collection management" is published in the journal Global Food Security. It is written by Fiona R. Hay, Katherine J. Whitehouse, Richard H. Ellis, N. Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, Charlotte Lusty, Marie Noelle Ndjiondjop, Daniel Tia, Peter Wenzl, Luis G. Santos, Mariana Yazbek, Vania CR Azevedo, Ovais H. Peerzada, Michael Abberton, Olaniyi Oyatomi, Flora de Guzman, Grace Capilit, Alice Muchugi, and Zakayo Kinyanjui.

Senior Researcher Fiona Hay, Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University. Tel.: +45 87158382 or mail: Fiona.hay@agro.au.dk