June 21, 2016

Our hunger for food security sees the global significance of our seed banks grow

An International Treaty is helping Australian farmers to boost productivity, adapt to climate change and stay competitive. Chief Plant Protection Officer Dr Kim Ritman discusses the treaty and its importance.

An International Treaty is helping to conserve and sustain genetic material and share it with breeders and researchers. Chief Plant Protection Officer Dr Kim Ritman discusses how this will help Australian farmers to grow more resilient and higher-yielding crops.

Crops with a higher yield and improved resistance to threats such as diseases, climate change and salinity can boost farmers’ productivity and help them to remain globally competitive. They can also support sustainable farming methods and cut costs by reducing the amount of insecticide, herbicide and fertiliser farmers need to use. But, to produce seeds that carry these desirable characteristics, breeders must have access to a wide range of genetic resources, or germplasm.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture provides a legal framework for the sustainable use, conservation and exchange of the genetic material of the world’s most important food crops. Australia has been instrumental in the treaty since it was established in 2004 and has provided approximately $1.5 million in funding since 2009.

“As 95 per cent of our agriculture is based on plant genetic resources from overseas our plant breeders rely heavily on the treaty for raw genetic material,” says Dr Kim Ritman, ​​​​​Chief Scientist and Chief Plant Protection Officer at the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources and Chair of the Pastures Genebank Steering Committee.

Saving lives in developing countries

The treaty’s 137 member countries are committed to sharing genetic resources with research organisations as well as commercial breeders. This provides crucial support for farmers in developing countries.

“Flood-tolerant rice is a good example,” says Dr Ritman. “Floods are very common in many of the major rice-growing regions in Asia, but conventional rice plants can only survive for a couple of days under water. The Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute located a gene for flood tolerance and used this to develop so-called scuba rice, which can survive under water for up to two weeks. This is helping to protect a major food supply and also farmers’ livelihoods. Losing just one crop to floods can force farmers to sell their equipment and, sometimes, even their land to survive. They’re then condemned to a life of poverty in the cities.”

Australia leading the way

Matthew Worrell, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources’ Counsellor in Rome, has chaired the Governing Body of the treaty since 2013. Under his leadership, the Governing Body has agreed to continue developing the project known as the Global Information System (GLIS) – a searchable database of food crop genetics.

“GLIS makes it much quicker and easier for plant breeders and researchers to locate and access particular traits, seeds and seed lines,” says Dr Ritman. “And, as GLIS provides the genetic code rather than a simple description of the various traits, it supports modern breeding techniques and enables the more sophisticated use of the genetic material.”


Consolidated seed banks

Australia is in the process of consolidating all of our plant genetic resources into two state-of-the-art facilities. The Australian Grains Genebank (AGG) in Horsham, Victoria will eventually house about 300 million seeds from around the world while the Australian Pastures Genebank in Adelaide will preserve 70,000 varieties of pasture and forage species.

“In the past, research organisations such as the CSIRO, governments and government agencies all over Australia had their own seed banks,” says Dr Ritman. “By bringing these collections together, we’re making it much easier to organise, locate and access the seeds and their genetic information.”

The seeds can also be correctly and consistently curated.

“They’re held in packets at a steady -18 degrees Celsius,” Dr Ritman continues. “We keep a record of how long they’ve been in storage and, if they reach a point where they might start to lose their viability, we plant them out, collect the new seeds and put these back into the Genebank. We’re very conscious that the seeds in these collections could make a key contribution to food security in Australia and around the world.”

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