Ukraine’s national seed bank is still standing, but could be ‘lost forever’, scientists warn

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Ukraine’s national seed bank was jeopardized by Russian bombardment in May, potentially endangering future food production.

On May 16, a YouTube video appeared from the private account of Serhiy Avramenko, senior researcher at the Yuriev Plant Production Institute in Kharkiv. It appeared to show the remaining rubble of the bombed-out building.

Reports soon followed, providing conflicting accounts of the destruction and the unknown state of the national seed collection. The technical officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, Elly Barrett, confirms that the national seed collection was in fact not destroyed.

Barrett is part of an international initiative working with the Yuriev Institute and the FAO office in Ukraine to support and secure the institute, its staff and its seed collection.

Although intact, the national seed collection remains at high risk as the war continues because it has not been fully “backed up” according to Barrett. In other words, a full copy does not exist.

What are seed genebanks?

Seed genebanks are institutions that conserve and study crop diversity, allowing researchers to develop varieties that are resistant to pests, diseases, and other adversities. They are a key player in evolution of agriculture as we adapt to the known impacts – and prepare for the unknown future – of the impacts of climate change.

According to FAO agricultural officer Bonnie Furman, it is best to have a copy of the complete seed collection stored elsewhere, such as with an international partner, in case something happens to the main seed collection. This way, copies can always be consulted for future research and to support agriculture.

Farmers have the option of repatriating crops from these seeds. It turned out to be possible for Syria when his institute was destroyed in the 2016 conflict. Copies of seeds were stored at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which these scientists then gained access to re-establish the seed collection, and new copies were returned to the Nordic Vault for safekeeping.

The same process could have been possible for the Ukrainian collection if it had been completely copied. But, says Barrett, “Ukraine has a unique collection and if it’s lost, it’s lost forever.”

Europe’s ‘breadbasket’ threatened by climate change and war

Known as the “Breadbasket of Europe”, Ukraine plays a vital role in many of the world’s staple food markets.

It has accounted for 3% of global wheat production on average over the past five seasons and is the fifth largest exporter of wheat with 10%, according to a recent “Agricultural Outlook”. report the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the FAO.

The country, exceptionally favorable for its black soil rich in organic matter called ‘chernozem’, also produces 20% of the world’s barley and is the largest producer of sunflower seeds.

But a previous FAO report from 2014 found that Ukraine’s food security was already vulnerable to climate change. Rising temperatures and increased seasonal variability pose new uncertainties in the country.

Today, the conflict has internally displaced around 8 million people. And despite the resilience of Ukrainian farmers, concerns about food security are growing, according to the outlook report which covers the period 2022-2031.

A revised FAO rapid response plan highlighted the country’s deteriorating food security, as farmers have “limited availability of essential agricultural inputs, including seeds, fertilizers, pesticidesequipment, fuel and cattle Provisions.” Labor shortages have also worsened as men are drafted and women are overworked.

Does Ukraine still supply grain to the world?

Externally, exports remain largely stagnant. But on August 1, the first Ukrainian grain ship left port since the Russian invasion began in January.

Major ports that once handled 90% of Ukraine’s exports are estimated to have shrunk to just 20%. With rising price inflation, global undernourishment could increase by 1% between 2022 and 2023, or the equivalent of 8 to 13 million people.

This estimated projection is only based on recorded figures from 2021 and 2022, and does not take into account the possibility of a protracted war.

These obstacles are accentuated by the vulnerability of the national seed collection of the Yuriev Institute. Seed genebanks and their collections act as agricultural and biodiversity safeguards for our future when crops are destroyed, whether by extreme weather or bombings.

Without seed genebanks, says Furman, “you lose the potential to feed humanity in the future.”

Why is crop diversity so important?

Crop diversity and adaptation are needed to develop solutions to the complex challenges posed by climate change to our future food production. When you lose a seed gene bank and its collection, you lose the potential to do so, Furman warns.

“There’s a whole range of issues that come with climate change,” she explains. “You have to be able to fight them, and the only way to do that is to diversify. And the only way to diversify is to have the diversity available.

Seed genebanks are a means of preserving and increasing seed diversity. It is considered “ex situ” or off-site conservation for specific seeds called “orthodox” species, but other seeds can only be conserved by “in situ” or on-site methods such as community seed banks. or field collection.

In situ conservation allows seeds to evolve together in the environment and with the pace of climate change in real time. “It preserves knowledge with the seeds,” explains Karine Peschard, associate researcher at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.

Maywa Montenegro, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggests that in situ methods also have the advantage of recirculating local seeds directly to smallholder farmers, contributing to agrobiodiversity and local knowledge.

The ex situ and in situ methods complement each other, says Peschard. They increase the diversity of seeds and agriculture, providing solutions at different levels to solve the unique problems exacerbated by climate change and conflict.

People can participate in increasing seed diversity locally by supporting their farmers’ markets, growing a diverse garden, and purchasing diverse seeds through seed networks, swaps, or exchanges.

“Diversity is key to our future with climate change. We need more diversity and more resilience,” adds Peschard.

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