The 30-Year Vision: The Future of CGIAR Genebanks

by Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, GCO Panel Member

As the world around us continues to change rapidly, so too must the genebanks that protect our crop diversity. Looking ahead 30 years, we can perhaps catch a glimpse of genebanks that are fundamentally different from the ones we know today.

Genebanks exist to help society respond to changing times. Through the crop diversity that they conserve, they give users the tools to respond to almost any conceivable current or future challenge related to providing more people with more, and more nutritious, food. They do this in spite of continually changing and growing threats from climate, pests and disease, soil problems and market fluctuations.

Genebanks are thus in a very special position. While the rest of the research-for-development world focuses on immediate development needs, genebanks take a long-term view of sustainable development, a VERY long-term view. In a world experiencing accelerated change, genebanks ensure that efforts to meet our immediate needs do not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

But therein lies a problem. While it is easy to be satisfied with imagining far-off, future contributions, it is not good enough.

Currently, genebank users are not able to get hold of the genebank resources they need fast enough to face emerging challenges, a problem that is rapidly worsening as the rate of change increases. Genebanks are not yet able to identify reliably which genetic resources users need—sadly, they often barely even know what they have in their own collections. They continue to rely on old technologies and old methods. And, despite CGIAR’s mandate to ensure genetic resources are equitably shared, many countries understandably doubt whether the benefits arising from the use of material conserved in CGIAR genebanks are being fairly shared with those who most need help. This doubt is fuelled by the reality that wealthy nations and laboratories are better able to take advantage of evolving technologies, widening the benefit gap.

Hence, change is needed, and urgently. Fortunately, modern technologies and management approaches offer huge opportunities to help genebanks improve decisions about what they conserve and supply, and how they do so. Moreover, a big change is coming to CGIAR as a whole. The 11 CGIAR centres hosting genebanks originated largely ad hoc, as independent legal entities established in different countries under 11 different international treaties, each with its own independent timeline, rationale, and management. CGIAR is fundamentally restructuring to enable it to act as a single system in the fight against climate change. The genebanks need to use this as an opportunity to integrate and better support the larger objectives of CGIAR.

So, what can we expect to see in the genebanks of the future?

On the technical side, we can expect that modern and emerging technologies and methods for genome sequencing, phenotyping and bioinformatics will enable genebank managers to know exactly what they have in their collections. With this information, genebank managers will be able to estimate the value of each accession, optimize the composition of their collections to avoid unwanted duplication, and fill gaps rationally. They will know—and with increasing precision—which accessions will best help any user to meet their specific, unique breeding or research targets, and customize the management of accessions according to their value.

In future, genebank users will value the information genebanks hold about their accessions as much as the material they hold. With modern approaches to material and process management, genebanks will be able to achieve higher throughputs with consistently higher and better-managed quality, at a lower cost. New conservation research will provide the information needed to maintain the health, viability and genetic integrity of genebank materials to both a higher standard and more cheaply.

On the policy side, predicting the next 30 years is more difficult. We must entertain the hope that policy developments will facilitate the introduction of technological advances while simultaneously ensuring that the benefits of these advances better reach the disadvantaged, who need them most.

This 30-year agenda is ambitious, but it is both necessary and within reach. To achieve the vision it embodies, genebanks must work hard in the next decade in all their areas of operation. They must make progress towards identifying the genes held in their collections, transition to “smart phenotyping” (designed to yield high returns on investment) and increase their understanding of how to maintain genebank materials’ health, viability and genetic integrity, particularly for challenging species. Finally, genebanks must adapt their processes and management to be more streamlined and more closely controlled and they must engage fully in international policy fora to ensure that benefits are fairly and equitably shared.



This is a summary of Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton’s background paper to the Chatham House Dialogue, CGIAR Genebanks, 2030 Vision. Dr. Hamilton, now retired, was previously an evolutionary biologist and a principal scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the head of the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI. He represented IRRI and the CGIAR in international fora such as the Plant Treaty and is a previous recipient of the Crop Trust Legacy Award.