Food Security: The Science, Sociology and Economics of Food Production and Access to Food

Genebanks and Food Security in a Changing Agriculture

Volume 12, issue 5, October 2020, pages 903–1047


Savary, S. In this issue – October 2020. Food Sec. 12, 903–904 (2020).

The October Issue of Food Security starts with a Special Section on Genebanks, co-edited by Conny Almekinders (Editorial Board of Food Security and WUR The Netherlands), Melinda Smale (Michigan State University, USA) and Nelissa Jamora (Global Crop Diversity Trust, Bonn, Germany). This Special Section starts with an Introductory article by Melinda Smale and Nelissa Jamora, titled Valuing genebanks.


Smale, M., Jamora, N. Valuing genebanks. Food Sec. 12, 905–918 (2020).

The UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 2.5 explicitly calls for the maintenance of genetic diversity of seeds through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at national, regional, and international levels as an essential undertaking to end global hunger (SDG Goal 2). This special issue results from a renewed call to demonstrate the value-in-use of conserving and supplying plant genetic resources conserved in genebanks to researchers, plant breeders, and farmers. We present these studies as a collective contribution to a relatively small body of literature that highlights not only the importance of crop plant diversity managed by genebanks but also the diversity of genebank functions and uses. In this overview, we begin by restating foundation concepts that economists have applied to study the value of crop genetic resources conserved as genebank accessions. We then provide a synthesis of previous research on genebank values from the late 1990s until the present. We summarize the main messages of the studies included in this special issue of Food Security and explain how they contribute to a better understanding of the role, function, and value of genebanks, particularly as we address food security challenges in a changing agricultural context. Finally, we draw implications for further applied research and policy.


Villanueva, D., Smale, M., Jamora, N. et al. The contribution of the International Rice Genebank to varietal improvement and crop productivity in Eastern India. Food Sec. 12, 929–943 (2020).

Using survey dataset collected from nearly 9000 farmers along with pedigree and evaluation data, this study measures the contribution of the International Rice Genebank (IRG) to varietal improvement and rice productivity of farmers in Eastern India. We empirically test the relationship of ancestry to productivity changes while controlling for the effects of other farm inputs and environmental factors. Estimated coefficients indicate that a 10% increase in the genetic contribution of IRG accessions to an improved rice variety is associated with a yield increase of 27%. Through pedigree analysis, we also confirm that 45 to 77% of the genetic composition of improved rice varieties is derived from the genes of IRG accessions. Peta, Dee Geo Woo Gen, and Fortuna are the three most popular progenitors with definite IRG contribution. High genealogical diversity likely results from the crossing of germplasm received from multiple countries of origin, which also confer multiple, functional trait combinations in a released variety. Further, our calculations reveal that the average coefficient of parentage of all pairwise combinations among the 10 most adopted rice varieties is 0.0973, indicating a high degree of latent genetic diversity. Findings demonstrate the valuable contribution of the genetic resources conserved and distributed by IRG to the development of improved rice varieties.


Ocampo-Giraldo, V., Camacho-Villa, C., Costich, D.E. et al. Dynamic conservation of genetic resources: Rematriation of the maize landrace Jala. Food Sec. 12, 945–958 (2020).

The conservation of landraces is fundamental to safeguarding crop diversity, food security, and sustainable production. Jala is a special maize landrace from the region in and around the Jala Valley of Mexico that produces the largest ear and tallest plant of all maize landraces in the world. Changing socio-economic and environmental conditions in the Jala Valley could lead to the genetic erosion of the ancestral Jala landrace, which can have global consequences. This study outlines the sequence of events in the history of Jala and describes the evolution of strategies for complementary in situ and ex situ conservation of maize genetic resources that are being developed and tested by the Jala Rematriation Project. The concept of dynamic conservation is discussed and applied to the specific case of Jala. The rematriation approach could be instrumental in creating an environment that enables the dynamic conservation of maize landraces in Mexico, the primary centre of this crop’s origin and diversity, and throughout its ancestral range in the Americas.


Aberkane, H., Payne, T., Kishi, M. et al. Transferring diversity of goat grass to farmers’ fields through the development of synthetic hexaploid wheat. Food Sec. 12, 1017–1033 (2020).

Genetic variation in wheat is needed to address global food security challenges, particularly as climates change. Crop wild relatives are unique reservoirs of useful alleles for crop improvement and are important components of genebank collections. We analyzed how the derivatives of ‘goat grass’ (Aegilops tauschii) have been used to widen the genetic base for wheat breeding and surveyed wheat breeders to elicit adoption estimates. Synthetic hexaploid wheat (SHW) is derived by crossing goat grass with durum wheat, serving as a bridge to transfer desirable traits into modern varieties of bread wheat. Our data show that wheat scientists used 629 unique accessions from 15 countries for pre-breeding, producing 1577 primary SHWs. These derivatives represented 21% of the germplasm distributed by the genebank of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center between 2000 and 2018. Over the period, more than 10,000 samples of SHW were sent to 110 institutions in 40 countries, with rising numbers of synthetic hexaploid-derived lines (SHDL) included in international nurseries. Lines were screened for major diseases of wheat. At least 86 varieties have been selected from SHDL and released in 20 countries. Survey estimates indicate the highest scale of adoption in southwest China and India, with 34% and 7% of reported wheat area, respectively. These varieties demonstrate resistance to pests and pathogens, high yield potential, good quality attributes, and suitability for biofortified wheat.


Alexandra, S., Jamora, N., Smale, M. et al. The tale of taro leaf blight: a global effort to safeguard the genetic diversity of taro in the Pacific. Food Sec. 12, 1005–1016 (2020).

This paper examines the vital role of genebanks in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources, highlighting the South Pacific’s version of the Irish Potato Famine and the organizational interdependence necessary to respond to disastrous losses in a cultivated food crop. We conducted an ethnobotanical fieldwork in Fiji, Vanuatu, and the Cook Islands, interviewing over 50 taro experts and farmers to gather the ‘Tale of Taro Leaf Blight’. Taro is the staple ‘prestige’ food crop of Samoa but in 1993, taro leaf blight (TLB), Phytophthora colocasiae, caused an almost 100% loss of the crop, threatening both food security and traditional cultural practices. Several international organizations were formed to conduct botanical expeditions to re-gather crop wild relatives of taro, Colocasia esculenta, from their various centres of origin. This parental material was used in a 10-year breeding cycle process to produce viable TLB-resistant varieties and replant the fallow fields of Samoa. The duty to safeguard these global accessions led to the formalization of CePaCT, which houses this core collection. The collection, conservation, multiplication, and distribution of taro has had a significant impact beyond the regional needs of the Pacific. Taro germplasm samples were distributed to countries worldwide affected by the blight, aiding in staving off potential famines and economic crises. This ancient aroid is one of the most consumed vegetables in the Pacific. It is an indispensable nutritional and caloric resource for subsistence farming nations, and carries deep ethnobotanical and cultural significance.


Bernal-Galeano, V., Norton, G., Ellis, D. et al. Andean potato diversity conserved in the International Potato Center genebank helps develop agriculture in Uganda: the example of the variety ‘Victoria’. Food Sec. 12, 959–973 (2020).

The International Potato Center (CIP) genebank conserves and facilitates access to highly diverse germplasm of potato, sweetpotato, and Andean roots and tubers as a global public good for food security. While it is generally understood that material from the CIP genebank has played an important role in the release of many CIP-related varieties grown by smallholder farmers in lower-income countries, the contribution has not been evaluated in quantitative terms. By applying the relative contribution of provenance based on pedigree data, we apportion the CIP genebank contribution of two released potato varieties: Pallay Poncho and Victoria. The estimated contribution of the CIP genebank to Pallay Poncho and Victoria is 35% and 72%, respectively. We then used an economic surplus approach to measure Victoria’s benefits in Uganda by attributing and valuing productivity gains. The gross benefit of Victoria in Uganda is estimated at USD $1.04 billion (2016 value), which exceeds the annual operating cost of the entire genebank over its lifetime. Seventy-two percent of the economic benefits corresponding to germplasm of Victoria are due to the CIP genebank contribution. Our findings demonstrate the magnitude of economic benefits generated by the use of conserved germplasm provided by the CIP genebank in crop improvement, which is only one of the several components of its total economic value. These results show that the availability of diverse germplasm is perhaps one of the most important elements in varietal development.


Gollin, D. Conserving genetic resources for agriculture: economic implications of emerging science. Food Sec. 12, 919–927 (2020).

New challenges have arrived for the conservation of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. Increased pressure on the environment, including the added threat of climate change, has had adverse effects on biodiversity and agricultural systems. Emerging science and new technologies have at the same time altered the scope of possibilities for collection, conservation, and utilization of genetic resources for agriculture. Taken together, these changes imply a need for a refocusing of global strategies for the management of genetic resources for agriculture. This paper argues that simple theoretical models provide relatively little guidance for key questions about genebank management. The fundamental uncertainty of scientific possibility and global futures makes it challenging – and perhaps futile – to attempt economic valuation of gene banks. A more useful application of economic tools will be in the prioritization of collection and conservation. Economic analysis may also offer useful insights into the efficient management of genetic resources.


Kitonga, K., Jamora, N., Smale, M. et al. Use and benefits of tree germplasm from the World Agroforestry genebank for smallholder farmers in Kenya. Food Sec. 12, 993–1003 (2020).

The World Agroforestry (ICRAF) in Kenya plays a key role in conserving tree genetic diversity, thereby contributing to the delivery of ecosystem services in tree-based production systems. This study explored the benefits of using the two most popular fodder tree species among smallholder farmers, sourced from the ICRAF genebank: Calliandra calothyrsus (Calliandra) and Gliricidia sepium (Gliricidia). Through a survey of key informants and genebank users, we examined the benefits derived from the adoption of Calliandra and Gliricidia and the unique role of the ICRAF genebank as the main source of tree germplasm for Kenyan smallholders. The constraints to germplasm access could limit protein fodder supply and the intensity of fertilization in farmers’ fields, which in turn could affect productivity in livestock and maize sectors in Kenya. We find that improved food security, higher incomes, increased milk production, reduced vulnerability to drought, reduced soil erosion, and enhanced soil fertility are identified as the main farmer-perceived benefits linked to the use of Calliandra and Gliricidia. The findings demonstrate the importance of agroforestry in the delivery of ecosystem services, in the light of climate change and heightened pressure for sustainable agricultural practices, and the crucial role of the genebank in conserving and distributing unique, high quality tree germplasm.


Sellitti, S., Vaiknoras, K., Smale, M. et al. The contribution of the CIAT genebank to the development of iron-biofortified bean varieties and well-being of farm households in Rwanda. Food Sec. 12, 975–991 (2020).

Genebanks play an essential role in a world where agricultural biodiversity has been lost from farming habitats, malnutrition persists as global population continues to rise, and farm productivity is vulnerable to climate change. We demonstrate the importance of the genebank of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) to the development of seven iron-biofortified varieties of climbing bean and the impact of their adoption on farm households in Rwanda. First, we link iron-biofortified varieties of climbing beans directly to the genebank through pedigree analysis and key informant interviews with the breeders who developed them. Second, we apply various econometric models to test the impact of adoption on yield, consumption, and purchase of beans by farming households in Rwanda, building upon previous research on bush beans. We based the analysis on a dataset of nearly 1400 households, collected in 2015 by HarvestPlus. We found that the scope of the genetic diversity housed in the bean collection at CIAT was fundamental to developing successful iron-biofortified beans. We found significant positive effects of climbing varieties on yields; however, we did not find significant effects on the amounts of beans consumed by households or bean purchases. Our results suggest that it is possible to trace the journey of an accession from its introduction in the genebank to its final use by farmers and consumers. Positive effects on yield generate incentives for adoption of iron-biofortified bean varieties, potentially boosting micronutrient consumption. Further research is needed to understand the factors affecting the adoption and impacts of climbing bean varieties.


Tyack, N., Ščasný, M. ‘Warehouse’ or research centre? Analyzing public preferences for conservation, pre-breeding and characterization activities at the Czech genebank. Food Sec. 12, 1035–1046 (2020).

Genebanks are places where crop varieties are stored, catalogued, and made available for redistribution so that their genetic diversity is not lost. Besides conserving cultivated crop diversity, some genebanks also conserve the wild relatives of crops, which can contain useful traits not present in the domesticated genepool, and can undertake other activities to make genetic diversity more usable in breeding, such as characterization and evaluation efforts and pre-breeding. We present here the results of a stated preference survey that elicits the preferences of the general Czech public for the conservation of additional wheat and wild wheat varieties, characterization and evaluation activities, and pre-breeding efforts. Czech citizens were asked whether they would be willing to make a one-time voluntary payment to finance specific, 10-year conservation programmes at the Czech genebank. Using a sequence of single-bounded dichotomous choice questions, we estimate a random effects probit model to analyze preferences for such conservation programmes. We find that Czech respondents had a strong preference for characterization and evaluation, and while they do not value pre-breeding, they are willing to pay for the conservation of additional wild wheat accessions (though not for cultivated wheat varieties). In aggregate, the estimated benefits are substantial compared to the current costs of conservation. The stated preference approach of this paper permits the estimation of the social value of crop diversity conservation and associated investments in research, including non-market values. Our results provide information of potential use for policymakers in relation to setting priorities for the funding of agricultural research.

The Genebanks

The 11 CGIAR genebanks currently conserve 730,000 of cereals and grain legumes, forage crops, tree species, root and tuber crops, bananas and crop wild relatives.