Sowing a secure future beyond seed banks

Published online 24 May 2022

Gene banks play a vital role in safeguarding critical plant biodiversity, but boosting regional food security ultimately requires improving farmers’ access to seeds.

Kira Walker

Harvesting a wheat crop in Morocco
Harvesting a wheat crop in Morocco

Independent Picture Service / Alamy Stock Photo
As food crops come under pressure from climate change and hunger becomes more widespread, recent events have exposed the weaknesses of global food systems even further, underscoring the urgency of transforming them.

The official opening of the International Center for Agriculture in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) gene bank in Morocco on 18 May 2022 places a spotlight on the help these facilities provide towards protecting countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)—which are highly dependent on food imports—from crises that impact global food security.

Since 2015, ICARDA has been rebuilding its collection, originally located in Aleppo, Syria, at facilities in Terbol, Lebanon and Rabat, Morocco. The new gene bank in Rabat has capacity for medium- and long-term storage (100,000 and 250,000 samples, respectively), and houses an extensive collection of wheat, barley and legume plant genetic material, which is available to breeders and researchers worldwide. It is also fully equipped for germination monitoring, characterisation and genetic assessment. 

The role of seed banks

The primary purpose of gene banks—also called seed banks or vaults—is to collect and conserve the diverse genetic material available in nature, which carries the long history of what plants have been exposed to, from rising temperatures to droughts to diseases. 

“A seed bank aims to expand the local seed base and food security by enriching the crop’s genetic diversity. Farmers' access to improved seeds has an impact on the sustainability of food production and consumption,” says Mohammad Shahid, a geneticist at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which stores a large collection of genetic material of drought-, heat- and salt-tolerant plant species.

Because improving varieties takes a decade or longer, gene banks are not intended to provide immediate solutions to shocks impacting food supply—such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the consequences for wheat exports—but to help boost resilience and food security over time.

Aly Abousabaa, director general at ICARDA, says countries could reduce import dependence in the short-term by using high-quality seeds in the next planting season to guarantee basic production and diversification to secure sufficient buffer crops before strategic grain reserves are reduced below critical limits. 

Barley, for example, was traditionally consumed in the MENA region until wheat’s popularity displaced it. While similar to wheat, barley is grown in marginal lands and requires less water; by planting both crops, countries can boost overall yields. “We have proven scientific evidence that you could mix up to 30% of barley flour together with wheat flour to produce bread with characteristics that are still acceptable to consumers,” says Abousabaa. “We should have plans in place to eventually eat what we can grow rather than insist on growing what we would like to eat.

Gene banks offer a wealth of non-conventional foods that can grow in extreme and difficult conditions. Yet when it comes to those sufficiently tested for human consumption, we have barely scratched the surface. “Nature holds enormous potential for us to explore,” says Abousabaa.

Challenges and opportunities

Augusto Becerra Lopez-Lavalle, chief scientist of ICBA, says gene banks need to be well equipped to conduct strategic research to unravel the genetic basis for crops to withstand and produce under extreme climatic stresses. “Guaranteed long-term funding support for the conservation, utilisation and improvements should be a global priority to ensure food security.”

Bolstering collaboration among organisations hosting gene banks is also necessary, especially in the MENA region, says Becerra Lopez-Lavalle. To that end, ICBA has launched an initiative to establish a consortium of gene banks in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation member countries.

Equally critical to regional food security is making improved seeds available to small- and medium-scale farmers. According to Rami Zurayk, professor and director of the American University of Beirut’s food security programme, this access is curtailed in the MENA region. “We know there are excellent varieties, however they are not accessible by the majority of farmers,” he says.

Farmers access improved varieties through national institutions, not gene banks like ICARDA or ICBA, a process Zurayk says is fraught with difficulties, particularly in countries in conflict or crisis, which are most in need of such varieties. “What do you do in the countries where these systems are broken? These wonderful accessions that might hold the key to an improvement in the livelihoods of farmers...they're very difficult to be transferred into the hands of the farmer.”

Abousabaa acknowledges getting improved crop varieties to those who most need them remains a challenge. “It’s not just having the technology; it’s also having it in the farmer’s fields…and that’s a much more complex process.”