Issues Magazine

First Historic Shipment of Australian Seeds to Arctic Vault

By Crawford Fund

An Australian farmer is travelling to a remote location in Norway to make the historical first deposit of crop seeds from Australia in the Arctic “doomsday” seed vault.

“Like the seeds on their way to Svalbard, Australian farming has gone a long way considering all our food crops are exotic to this country. We have depended almost completely on other countries for seeds to feed us and make us a major force in global agriculture,” said Dr Tony Gregson, a member of the Crawford Fund’s board, who will be joined in Svalbard by Professor Edwina Cornish, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at Monash University and Mr James Choi, the Australian Ambassador to Norway.

“Like me, many Australian farmers have been dealing with extremes in weather, which are harsh reminders of the need to research and have access to crops that can adapt to changing conditions and new pests and diseases,” said Gregson.

While Australia has only just organised its first shipment, it played an important role in the vault’s establishment. Through AusAID and the Grains Research and Development Corporation, Australia was one of the first countries to support the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which operates the seed vault in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center in Sweden.

“Australia has been a generous and committed supporter of the Global Crop Diversity Trust from the beginning. Australia’s unique geography means that, perhaps more than any other nation, it is acutely aware of how vulnerable agriculture is, and of the vital importance of crop diversity in confronting the challenges to each harvest. We are thrilled that Australian seeds will now be benefiting from the kind of protection that the Vault provides,” said Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

“We have gained so much from other countries and generous public research bodies that have freely provided us with their seeds, and it’s time to reciprocate. It’s satisfying to see Australia start to improve arrangements so that our germplasm is safe and more freely available to the global scientific and agricultural communities,” said Gregson, a grain grower from Victoria’s Wimmera region who has extensive national and international experience in biodiversity conservation for food security and is passionate about plant genetic resource conservation.

“I hope that this first small shipment of Australian germplasm will be followed by others so that more of Australia’s crops are safe. Australia also needs to move towards secure funding and better management of its own collections, and to living up to its international treaty obligations to share its seeds globally and help feed the world,” he said.

“Just like the rest of the world’s seed collections, ours are vulnerable to a wide range of threats such as natural catastrophes, and perhaps surprisingly in a relatively wealthy country like Australia, lack of adequate funding. For want of a federal/state agreement, Australia has seen a number of its collections defunded.”

The Australian deposit is coming from the Australian Temperate Field Crops Collection in Horsham, Victoria. Our other collections are in Tamworth (Australian Winter Cereals Collection), Perth (Australian Trifolium Genetic Resource Centre) and Canberra (Australian Indigenous Relatives of Crops Collection). The pasture collections in Biloela (Australian Tropical Crops and Forages Collection) and Adelaide (Australian Medicago Genetic Resource Centre) have been mothballed.

Gregson suggests a range of other activities to boost the Australian contribution to global food security and help shape the future of our own rural industries and the communities they support including:

• commitments to 50:50 governments: industry funding for Australia’s seedbanks, which are currently facing underfunding and closure;

• appointment of a national coordinator of our gene banks, to be the Australian focal point for our collections who can serve organisational, management and advocacy roles; and

• establishment of a national database and authority for Australia’s implementation of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the cornerstone of global germplasm exchange.

“I would also like to see Australia commit to further collection of our native and unique genetic resources such as wild relatives of sorghum, rice and soybean that will help in the development of new crops in the face of climate change. Australia also has globally significant forest tree species, and our microorganism, plant pathogen and insect pest collections are all essential to Australia’s status as a vibrant global food producer.”

As the Global Seed Vault nears its third anniversary, it is well on its way to ensuring that one day all of humanity’s existing food crop varieties are safely protected in a frozen environment from any threat to agricultural production, natural or manmade.

Gregson has worked internationally and in Australia on the policy frameworks to conserve the germplasm so important to farmers in Australia and worldwide. In addition to his work on food security with the Crawford Fund, he is Chairman of the CRC for Molecular Plant Breeding and Plant Health Australia, and immediate past-Chairman of Bioversity International and former board member of CIMMYT, the international maize and wheat research institute in Mexico, which was responsible for breeding semi-dwarf wheat varieties that proved so productive in Australia’s harsh conditions.

About the Vault
Crop collections around the world serve the daily needs of farmers and plant breeders in their work to find new traits that can boost yields or address problems posed by diseases, pests or shifting climate conditions. You can find further background on the seed vault at www.croptrust.org/main/arcticseedvault.php?itemid=842