Future Seeds: Opening the Science of Crop Conservation to the World

Photo: Shawn Landersz

Ruben Echeverría, Director General of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)

The news of Daniel Debouck’s retirement hit me like a 100-kilogram sack of beans falling off a storehouse pile. After four decades leading the management of the world’s largest collection of beans – some 38,000 different varieties – Daniel’s departure would leave a vacancy almost impossible to fill. As a collector, curator and researcher, his work on one of the world’s most important sources of plant-based protein enabled scientists to improve the lives of millions of people across dozens of countries.

We were in a bit of a bind. Who would carry on his work?

The world has changed in ways that we never imagined since Daniel first began exploring South America’s Andean hillsides in search of the ancient wild relatives of beans in the 1970s. By the time he wrapped up his last expedition to the hills of Costa Rica in 2018, much of what he’d collected had disappeared from the wild or the traditional farms where people had been developing new varieties of beans for thousands of years.

This loss isn’t just occurring with beans: over the last century, we’ve lost thousands of crop varieties important for food and agriculture.

This comes at a time when crop diversity is as critical as it has ever been for the future of humanity, which has gone from about 4 billion people at the start of Daniel’s career to 7.6 billion today. And while we’ve made great advances on eradicating hunger, there is still much to do – especially in terms of improving nutrition, which has worsened in spite of the rich world’s ability to produce copious amounts of food, much of which goes to waste.

About one third of people suffer from a problem related to food, spanning the gamut from downright chronic hunger to obesity.

I believe these problems – the question of who will continue Daniel’s legacy, the global crisis surrounding nutrition, and solving the crop diversity issue – all stem from one common cause: people, in general, know very little about the food they eat. This is one of the reasons experts often say our food systems are “broken.” But I like to think that many of us – “the experts” – share a portion of the blame.

Fixing food systems is going to be one of the greatest challenges of this century. To do this, we need to take our knowledge out of stodgy scientific journals and the places where we (quite literally) keep our secrets locked away – or at least out of view of most people. One of these places is the genebank that Daniel and colleagues built over the last half-century. While the genebank exists to conserve public goods – seeds – and make them available around the globe, it is not known well enough outside of specialist circles.

A living collection

Hidden in a sea of sugar cane in southwestern Colombia, the genebank that safeguards the bean collection Daniel helped build is also home to an astounding collection of tropical forages (the plants that livestock eat) and cassava, a staple crop across much of the tropics that is also used in a wide variety of industrial products.

This is not a sitting-around-and-getting-dusty collection, the kind that you might find in the forgotten warehouse of a museum. This collection is alive.

Dozens of specialists work every single day to keep the seeds viable. Even with the best techniques, seeds need to be tested regularly, and regenerated and replaced when necessary, to assure they will still germinate when needed. Cassava varieties, which are kept alive as small plantlets in test tubes, need to be replaced much more frequently – all 6,600 of them.

Researchers using the latest DNA technologies explore the collection for genes that make crops stronger in the face of diseases, pests and climate change. They also find ways to make crops more nutritious and forages better for livestock, while simultaneously improving degraded farmland.

Farmers around the world receive samples from our collection, improving their fields, productivity and livelihoods. And the diets of millions of people have improved thanks to the better crops and forages we have developed along with our partners.

I’m especially proud of the biofortified beans which were created thanks to the genebank collection. They are becoming must-have health foods in parts of Kenya and Uganda, where they are key components of lightly processed and highly nutritious food for low-income families facing nutritional problems. These products, which are sourced from local fields and processed by small, local companies, are compelling examples of how a food system can begin to be “fixed.”

Future Seeds

Daniel’s achievements in collection and conservation must be built upon if we are to address the world’s needs for healthier, more sustainable food systems.

This was made clear when the United Nations, in 2015, drew up the Sustainable Development Goals. Under the umbrella of the Zero Hunger goal is Target 2.5: to conserve Earth’s agricultural genetic diversity – crops, livestock and their wild relatives, including in genebanks – by 2020.

As part of our activities to support SDG 2.5, we began construction of new genebank late last year. Once completed, Future Seeds, as we call it, will greatly increase our capacity to safeguard threatened crop varieties. It will also give our scientists the modern facility they need to study the full extent of the crops we’ve already conserved. The current facility is just not up to it anymore.

But it’s about more than just bricks and mortar. What about the next generation of Daniel Deboucks?

We want to help find and mentor them. Essential to unlocking the genetic secrets that will allow our crops to thrive – and provide nutrition to a world of up to 10 billion people in 2050 – is to find and provide training to his professional heirs. I believe that finding this next generation of scientists begins with opening our doors wider than ever before. That’s why Future Seeds will be more than just a genebank and research facility. It’s being built like few other genebanks, with glass walls and open spaces for general visitors. By bringing people closer to the building blocks of the food they eat, they may begin to better understand nutrition, share our passion for understanding what makes a food system work and even help us make it a reality.

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