The Global Crop Diversity Trust

Finalist 2020 Based in Germany

Safeguarding the genetic diversity of global crops, stored in gene banks for food production options in various climate scenarios.

The Challenge: Continuous decline of crop diversity for sourcing our food

Since the dawn of agriculture, crop diversity has provided the means to continually adapt to evolving diseases and pests, as well as changes in season, climate, and consumer demands. Diversity is key to ensuring the quality and quantity of our food and the functionality and resilience of our food systems. Evidence shows that without increased diversity, agriculture will not be able to meet the future challenges caused by population growth, increasing wealth and a changing climate.

The need for crop variety is on the rise, but unfortunately, it is also in rapid decline, reflecting – and causing – an overall biodiversity loss. Today, achieving food security and ending hunger has again emerged as one of the greatest threats facing the world, after 40 years of relatively steady improvement.

Since the 1950’s the main agricultural strategy has been to refocus on a few high-yielding crops and intensified agricultural practices, including extensive irrigation, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Although successful in fighting hunger, this focus on high yields has been detrimental to the environment. Expanding monocultures has not only degraded and polluted land, waterways, and the atmosphere, it has made us, and the biosphere, increasingly vulnerable.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust (the Crop Trust) is a Bonn-based international organization working to preserve crop diversity and protect global food security. It was established through a partnership between the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the CGIAR. Since 2008 it operates the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in partnership with the Government of Norway and the Nordic Gene Bank (NordGen).

Most of the funds from the organization’s donors have been invested in the Crop Trust’s own Endowment Fund, established to provide guaranteed financial support to gene banks worldwide, for the long-term.

The Endowment Fund support individual gene banks as well as the Global Genebank Partnership, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and the operating costs of the Crop Trust secretariat. Additionally, project funds have supported the Crop Wild Relatives Project, the Seeds4Resilience Project, as well as various rescue operations.

“Gene banks all over the world may indeed prove to be our “lenders of last resort”. But these institutions could themselves be endangered when economies go sour. Funding the gene banks is an existential issue.”

Now, to mitigate some very likely and catastrophic climatic scenarios, we desperately need a more diverse portfolio of crops, one that can handle various – and increasingly varying – farming conditions. Without it, it will be difficult, maybe impossible, to nourish a growing world population sustainably.

Gene banks can provide the genetic material for a varied food supply and more affordable and healthier food to fight malnutrition. However, public gene banks worldwide are facing financial security issues, even making it hard for these biorepositories to keep track of what is stored and if the genetic material is still alive. More funds are needed to cover operational costs and encourage activities that strengthen collaboration and exchange in the global system of gene banks, including standards of management and availability of data.

Gene banks all over the world may indeed prove to be our “lenders of last resort”. But these institutions could themselves be an endangered species when economies go sour. Funding and supporting the gene banks is an existential issue.

Durum wheat demonstration plots in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Photo: Michael Major, Crop Trust

The Initiative: A global endowment fund that guarantees the longevity of gene banks

Greater diversity of genetic resources made available to all through an efficient, global gene bank system, can ensure and establish a resilient food supply and more stable prices when times are turbulent.

The only international organization dedicated solely to conserving crop diversity, the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s mandate is to help develop and fund a rational, cost-effective global system to conserve crop diversity in gene banks, through long-term, sustainable support to key collections of the crops that are most important for food security and nutrition. With its Endowment Fund, the Crop Trust provides guaranteed financial support to gene banks worldwide.

Partnering with the Government of Norway and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen), the Endowment Fund established the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which provides a last-resort back-up facility for the world’s gene banks. It currently houses duplicates of about one million seed samples originating from almost every country in the world. The Fund also contributes to the running costs of eight international gene banks and has established a partnership agreement with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), pledging financial support for the essential operations of the world’s most important rice gene bank.

The support provided by the Crop Trust’s Endowment Fund comes solely from investment income earned, so that the capital is not drawn upon. Approximately 95% of the Endowment Fund’s capital is provided by national governments, with the remainder coming from the private sector. In an effort to diversify its funding base and to develop innovative funding mechanisms, the Crop Trust is also exploring crop-based fundraising strategies and crowdfunding that aims to raise awareness and increase name recognition within a broad audience.