Monday, October 4, 2010

Seed Banks under threat in Australia

If you visit the Science Show on ABC Radio National you can listen to the radio report on the story concerning threats to funding (and closure) of Australia's Seed Banks and the serious long term implications for food security from the Saturday, Oct 2nd show.  NB: Monday there will be a transcript available.
This site links you to a 6 page article from Cosmos science magazine that gives an in depth outline by the same journalist Elizabeth Finkel

Purple clover
   Purple clover at the Australian Trifolium 
        Genetic Resource Centre, Perth.
Finkel reports on the recently held THE 2010 CRAWFORD CONFERENCE on Biodiversity and World Food Security - an illustrious affair held night and day in Canberra's parliament house - a sleek, beautiful structure floating like a vast space ship atop Capital Hill. Read more about this conference at an earlier blog post here.
The conference organisers had recruited a star line-up to champion the cause: Cristian Samper, director of the Smithsonian Institute, Stephen Hopper, director of the Kew Gardens and Emile Frison, Director of Biodiversity International - an institute "committed to the conservation and use of plant genetic resources".
Yet, there was an elephant in the room. The fact is, biodiversity and agriculture make for odd bedfellows. Historically, agriculture has been unkind to biodiversity. There are an estimated 30,000 edible species, while 60% of the world's calories are provided by just three: wheat, rice and corn.
Finkel puts forward that:
"the real story of the conference, one that was not listed on the program notes or press releases. It was discussed in alarmed tones at coffee breaks and as it happens, finally erupted in the question time of the last session."

NOT LONG AGO, Australia boasted six functioning seed banks. But, as the delegates discovered while eating their farewell breakfast in Mural Hall, one more Australian seed bank was about to bite the dust: the Australian Tropical Crops and Forages Collection at Biloela Queensland.
Though the federal government funded the establishment of the seed banks, it was up to the states collaborating with agricultural research and development corporations to maintain them. Maintenance doesn't just mean storage - every seed has a finite shelf life of somewhere between years to decades. So each seed has to be regenerated, a sometimes difficult and expensive task, as each seed requires a particular climate and latitude to flower and set seed.
Biloela is the third seed bank to go into crisis in the last two years.
Read more here from the excellent article. 

The concluding remarks....
MANY ARE MYSTIFIED that the federal government forked out $21.3 million to support the Global Crop Diversity trust (which supports the seed vault at Svalbard) but has not stepped in to help its own crumbling banks.
The reality is that a functional system probably would not even be that costly. "It's degenerating for the sake of a few million dollars per year", estimates Tony Gregson, the Chair of Plant Health Australia, and past Chairman of Bioversity International.
Another report just came out on September 23 —this one from the Productivity Commission. It was a review of the way the Rural Research and Development Corporations are funded. It offered a possible ray of hope for the seed banks.
A new entity titled "Rural Research Australia" would be broadly targeted towards public good, addressing things like land, water and energy research. Perhaps seed banks might get a Guernsey here? I don't think anyone's holding their breath. But if you'd like to try and influence the discussion, the review is accepting comments till November 26th.
2010 may be the year of biodiversity but for Australia it may be remembered as the year yet another seed bank was mothballed. At the very least, let's make sure that we know what we're losing.
Elizabeth Finkel is a contributing editor Cosmos.

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