ROME, ITALY — A new United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) publication is aimed at improving conservation of food crops, many of which are crucial to the world’s food and nutrition security. 

The publication, “Genebank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture,” outlines voluntary, international standards for the many repositories — or genebanks — around the world that store seeds and other materials used to reproduce plants, as well as living plants in the field.

More than 7 million samples of seeds, tissues and other plant-propagating materials from food crops, along with their wild relatives, are safeguarded in about 1,750 genebanks.

The standards are designed to guide users in implementing the most appropriate technologies and procedures for the collection, conservation and documentation of crop diversity. Their wide application also supports research that could stem the loss of biodiversity and boost sustainability in agriculture, both necessary conditions for feeding a world population that is expected to exceed 9 billion by the year 2050. 

Well-managed genebanks help to preserve genetic diversity and make it available to breeders and other scientists, who can then use it to develop and share improved varieties, including those adapted to particular agro-ecological conditions.

“As the world’s population grows and continues to face a wide range of climate, environmental and other challenges, maintaining a healthy variety of seeds and other plant genetic resources for the benefit of people in all countries will be essential to keeping agricultural and food systems sustainable and resilient, generation after generation,” said Ren Wang, FAO assistant director-general.

“Genebanks help bridge the past and the future by ensuring the continued availability of plant genetic resources for research and for breeding new varieties that meet the consumers’ continually evolving needs and a changing climate. They help us to conserve plant genetic resources and to improve them; they also help countries to share and exchange genetic resources with each other,” said Linda Collette, secretary of FAO’s intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

The publication was prepared under the guidance of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which in 2013 endorsed and urged the universal adoption of international standards for conservation in seed banks, field genebanks and for in vitro and cryopreservation of plant tissue.

The non-binding standards address a wide range of issues, including techniques for collecting samples; consistent labeling; protection from fungi, bacteria, pests and physical stress factors; viability and genetic integrity testing; and, developing strategies for the rapid multiplication of samples for distribution.

The world’s genebanks differ greatly in the size of their collections and the human and financial resources at their disposal. The standards will help genebank managers strike a balance between scientific objectives, resources available, and the objective conditions under which they work.

FAO experts consulted with a wide range of partners, including those at the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global partnership whose research is carried out at 15 centers worldwide, in particular Bioversity International; genebank managers; relevant academic and research institutions; and, national focal points for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.