The 7-9th of June I was honoured with the opportunity to participate in the 16th ECPGR meeting as an observer on behalf of the Let’s Liberate Diversity! network. ECPGR stands for European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resrources and aims at conserving ex situ and in situ plant genetic resources, providing access and increasing their sustainable use. The meeting was held at a conference centre in Malmö and the facilities of NordGen in Alnarp, Sweden. Participants were national representatives, often working in the respective national gene banks, agricultural research institutes, or ministries of agriculture.
How ECPGR works and the content of the 16th meeting
ECPGR divides its development into phases that are initiated by deciding certain goals and ambitions and then dedicating the phase to fulfilling them. This meeting was discussing the ongoing phase X (2019-2023), and how to move into phase XI. Hence, presentations and workshops were mainly focusing on achievements and conclusions from the ongoing phase and setting ambitions for the next one. ECPGR also operates through working groups addressing the interests of different crop categories and other thematic categories such as in situ conservation of crop wild relatives, cryopreservation, and on farm conservation. ECPGR is publicly funded and further in-depth information on their activities is easily accessible on their website (www.ecpgr.cgiar.org), including a report from this meeting
What are AEGIS, EVA and EURISCO?
Some of the results of the ECPGR collaboration are the establishment of AEGIS, EVA, and EURISCO. These are databases that intend to facilitate conservation strategies, accessibility, and utilization of the plant genetic resources. AEGIS (A European Genebank Integrated System) aims at listing accessions from each gene bank that are unique to their collection and local area. This way a European collection can be established with a defined common standard for conservation and accessibility, as well as cost sharing as the utilization could be of interest within all of Europe. EVA (European Evaluation Network) aims at increasing the use of crop genetic diversity and the diversity of stakeholders in plant breeding. Through public-private collaborations evaluation data is collected and published. The EVA is working through crop specific networks currently active for carrots, lettuce, maize, wheat and barley, and peppers. EURISCO (European Search Catalogue for Plant Genetic Resources) collects ex situ conservation data on more than 2 million accessions from 400 institutes within 43 member countries. The database is intended to make information easily accessible, but actual seed requests should still be done to the institutions that maintains the accessions. Being on the EURISCO list does not guarantee that the seeds are accessible to order.
The need to link ECPGR goals with civil society and NGOs
As an activist for dynamic managment and use of agrobiodiversity, it was of great value to get insight in the contemporary situation of how conservation of plant genetic resources is being governed on national and European level. Since many years, me and several others has claimed that only conserving plant genetic resources in gene banks is like putting “all the eggs in the same basket”. It’s unfortunate that several recent global events (also addressed in this meeting) only confirms the urgency of reviving both access and utilization of crop diversity to the people. War is one of the biggest threats to centralized ex situ conservation. The destruction of the gene banks in Syria and Iraq (the cradle of many of our most important agricultural crops) should have been enough to learn this, now parts of the Ukrainian gene bank is also added to the list of unfortunate examples. While the impact of wars and bombings are clear and evident, political, and financial threats are less apparent. National conservation strategies rely heavily on state funding and political decisions. Looking at the political fluctuations within Europe, and the differences in financial capacities between countries, one could easily see that there are serious pitfalls for this type of conservation strategies in the long run.
Bring back diversity in the fields!
Facilitating efforts of getting diversity back into farmer fields is a way of spreading the risk. As part of the strategy is to also promote the consumption of these varieties, it is a cost-efficient way as the growers would be financially self-sustaining. Getting the diversity back into farmers fields is also a good strategy to increase our capacity for climate change adaptation. As we don’t know how the climate will change, we need diversity to be able to face all the potential scenarios.
My understanding from the ECPGR meeting is that it is difficult for many of the involved organisations to extend too far into the promotion and distribution of old varieties as it conflicts with the interests of the conventional seed industry and the current seed legislation. This emphasizes the importance of independent but collaborative seed saver networks and other efforts to promote the utilization and revival of crop diversity into farmer fields.
Here you can find ECPGR bulletin number 25 with all the details of the meeting, active projects and available funding. https://mailchi.mp/ee51209da1ec/ecpgr-bulletin-issue-no-25-july-2022
Dylan Wallman is representing the Swedish seed saver organization ‘Föreningen Sesam’ in the Let’s Liberate Diversity network. He is a horticultural scientist specialized in organic plant breeding and agrobiodiversity facilitation. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the Swedish Agricultural University, where he is intercropping peas and faba beans, utilizing crop diversity and old varieties to increase productivity and sustainability in organic farming.