Ukraine’s national seed bank still stands but could be ‘lost forever’ scientists warn

Ukraine’s national seed bank was compromised by Russian shelling in May, potentially jeopardizing future food production.

On May 16, a YouTube video appeared from the private account of Serhiy Avramenko, chief researcher at the Yuriev Plant Production Institute in Kharkiv. It appeared to show the remains of the shelled building.

Reports soon followed, giving conflicting accounts of the destruction and the unknown status of the national seed collection. The Technical Officer for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, Elly Barrett, confirms that the national seed collection was not actually 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 the seed collection.

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

What are seed gene banks?

Seed banks are institutions that preserve and study the diversity of crops, so that researchers can develop varieties that are resistant to pests, diseases and other adversities. They are a key player in the development of agriculture as we adapt to the known – and prepare for the future unknown – effects of climate change.

According to FAO Agriculture Officer Bonnie Furman, the best practice is to have a copy of the entire seed collection stored elsewhere, such as with an international partner, in case something happens to the main seed collection. That way, copies can still be available for future research and to support agriculture.

Ukraine has a unique collection, and if it is lost, it is lost forever.

Farmers have the option to repatriate crops from these seeds. This turned out to be possible Syria when the institute was destroyed during the conflict in 2016. Copies of seeds were stored on Svalbard Global seed vault in Norway, later access to these researchers to re-establish the seed collection, and new copies were sent back to the Nordic Vault for safekeeping.

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

Europe’s “breadbasket” is threatened by climate change and war

Air Command Center in Ukraine/Reuters

Ukrainian troops shoot down a Russian drone over sunflower fields. – Air Command Center in Ukraine/Reuters

Known as ‘Europe’s breadbasket’, Ukraine plays a critical role in several of the world’s main food markets.

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

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

But a former FAO report from 2014 found that Ukraine’s food security was already vulnerable to climate change. Rising temperatures and increased seasonal variation are creating new uncertainty in the country.

Today, the conflict has internally displaced an estimated 8 million people. And despite the resilience of Ukrainian farmers, food security concerns are growing, according to the outlook report covering 2022-2031.

A revised FAO rapid response plan highlighted the country’s worsening food security as farmers have “limited availability of critical agricultural inputs, including seeds, fertilizers, pesticidesequipment, fuel and livestock supplies.” Labor shortages have also increased as men are conscripted and women are overworked.

Does Ukraine still supply grain to the world?

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

Key ports that previously channeled 90 percent of Ukraine’s exports are now estimated to reach only 20 percent. With increasing price growth, global malnutrition could increase by 1 percent in 2022 to 2023 – equivalent to between 8 and 13 million people.

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

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

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

Why is crop diversity so important?

Pixabay

People can support seed diversity at the local level by buying different seeds through seed saving networks, exchanges or swaps. – Pixabay

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

“There are a whole host of problems that come with climate change,” she explains. “You have to be able to combat those, 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 way of preserving and increasing seed diversity. They are considered ‘ex situ’ or off-site conservation for specific seeds called ‘orthodox’ species, but other seeds can only be conserved through ‘in situ’ or on-site methods such as communal seed banks or field collection.

In situ conservation allows seeds to co-evolve in the environment and with the pace of climate change in real time. “It preserves the knowledge with the seeds,” says Karine Peschard, a fellow at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.

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

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

People can get involved in increasing seed diversity at the local level by supporting farmers’ markets, growing a diverse garden and buying different seeds through seed saving networks, exchanges or swaps.

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

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