Just over a year ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, and countries around the world instituted lockdowns and other measures to stem soaring infection rates.
While governments highlighted the vital role that supermarket staff and transportation workers were playing in stocking food shelves, scientists began to focus on the other end of the supply chain, including how genebanks would cope with the ‘new normal.’
CGIAR genebanks manage the largest and most widely used collections of crop diversity in the world. Together, these 11 genebanks conserve more than 700,000 different samples of cereals, grain legumes, forages, roots, tubers and even bananas and trees.
Each year, they respond to thousands of requests for this diversity from users in more than 100 countries, thereby supporting the objectives of the Plant Treaty and key targets of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
“The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us why genebanks are important. It’s precisely in unusual, unpredictable times when we, as a global community, most need access to the resources that may hold the answers to urgent global problems,” says Charlotte Lusty of the Crop Trust, coordinator of the CGIAR Genebank Platform, which supports CGIAR genebanks.
However, the lockdown measures over the past year have had major impacts on genebank operations, varying both geographically and by crop. Staffing had to be reduced to maintain social distancing, or to protect vulnerable personnel. Some staff members were infected with COVID-19, but have fortunately recovered.
Genebanks in Latin America were most affected, with the tissue culture collections facing the greatest challenges. Managers estimate operations were running at 36 percent to 77 percent of normal levels.
Technicians who needed to work in close proximity to colleagues or travel longer distances to fulfil their duties faced the biggest obstacles. Lockdown particularly affected genebank operations such as subculturing tissue culture, seed regeneration in the field, viability testing and cryopreservation.
“Our current genebank building is too small, so because of social distancing we had to reduce our operations and focus on keeping the collections alive,” says Peter Wenzl, who leads the Genetic Resources Program at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT in Cali, Colombia. “The situation is particularly difficult for the cassava collection as the laboratory holding the tissue culture collection is tiny.”
Plants that are maintained only in the field were affected in several centers because staff were unable to travel to field sites. Watering, pruning, and controlling pests and diseases were challenging and in some cases had to be temporarily halted.
A surprising effect of the new working regimes was the devolution of responsibility to younger staff. In several centers, managers were either not allowed into the genebanks because of their age, or they worked remotely to give more technicians on-site access, thus giving junior staff more responsibility in the day-to-day running of operations.
Even in times of crisis, there are signs of hope and resilience. It took only a few weeks for genebanks and germplasm health units to make up for the temporary lag in germplasm distribution. While distribution figures have fallen by as much as 40 percent in 2020 from the previous year, this is mainly due to fewer requests being received, rather than genebanks being unable to respond.
Similarly, samples that have been lost in tissue culture have been replaced from safety duplicates.
“We have to realize how fortunate we have been to have funding from CGIAR, the Crop Trust and other donors these past eight years to build up the resilience of these genebanks; otherwise, the losses would have been significantly worse,” Lusty says. “However, once the pandemic is over, we will need to build the resilience back up again. The only answer for clonal crops is really to massively scale up cryopreservation.”
Although major losses were prevented in 2020, they may not be so easily preventable in 2021 as there is now reduced safety duplication.
There is work to do on the seed collections too. Looking afresh at risk management, there are various measures that can be put in place to ensure that future genebanks can function adequately while staff work remotely.
Installing automated irrigation systems, remote alarms and cameras, and automating seed processing, can all help improve genebank resilience. For seeds, the main aim remains, as always, on moving seeds as quickly as possible from field to cold room.
For example, the genebanks at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Morocco and Lebanon now have a backlog of freshly harvested seeds that need urgent processing. Delays can reduce seed quality, so anything that helps to streamline processing and sustain the “dry chain” along which seed samples are processed is a great advantage.
With some parts of the world now growing in optimism from the rollout of vaccines in 2021, the genebanks are also looking for brighter prospects on the horizon.
By late 2021, the Alliance – CIAT genebank plans to start moving its three collections to a new, iconic center, called Future Seeds, according to Wenzl.
“This new building will provide ample space, so once we’ve completed the move, we’ll be in a much better position to face any future pandemic,” he says, adding, “It looks great too.”