SADC seed accessions increase to 63 000 Dr Justify Shava

Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor

The SADC Plant Genetic Resource Centre (SPGRC) now holds more than 63 000 diverse crop and wild relative accessions as the bloc steps up long-term efforts to conserve germplasm collections and develop new varieties resistant to climate change and other threats.

Head of SPGRC, Dr Justify Shava told participants at a regional training workshop for curators in Harare on Wednesday that the centre now had 63 000 samples of crops from gene-banks in the southern Africa region.

“To date, the region has collected over 63 000 different accessions of crops which form the core sources of food for the SADC People,” he said.

“These are safely stored in various genebanks in the SADC region with some duplicated at the regional genebank in Lusaka and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Svalbard Archipelago in the North Pole as a risk mitigation measure for the SADC region.”

A few years ago, the SADC genebank had 18 000 accessions or unique varieties of seeds in its storage from different member states.

Plant breeders often need quick access to seed banks to develop new varieties in case of natural disasters and other threats.

The SPGRC was established in 1989 to conserve all genetic resources in the region for the benefit of member countries.

This centre is located on an 86-hectare piece of land in the Chongwe district of Zambia and coordinates collection, conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic diversity for the benefit of present and future generations in the 16-member regional bloc.

SPGRC works with National Plant Genetic Resources Centres (NPGRCs) in each of the SADC states to contribute to food security and improved livelihoods and coordination of all activities.

The regional seed bank collects, documents and conserves a wide range of food crops that include sweet potatoes, millet, sorghum, maize, wheat, groundnuts, beans and many others.

Speaking at the same event, Dr Dumisani Kutywayo, Chief Director, Department of Research and Specialist Services in the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Fisheries, Water and Rural Development said SADC countries should embrace new technology and innovations in the conservation, collection and handling of plant genetic resources to boost agricultural production and ensure the ability of seeds to survive long periods of dry storage.

“We need to embrace new technologies such as tissue culture in conservation of genetic resources,” he said.

“For many years, we had neglected our vegetatively propagated plant species and now we are taking care of them using appropriate technologies such as tissue culture.

“It is important to continue to promote the use of advanced technologies and tools while leveraging interdisciplinary institutional linkages in research at the national, regional and international levels.

“SPRGC remains strategically placed to foster such linkages and this workshop is a great example.”

Plant genetic resources include traditional and modern varieties, crop wild relatives, genetic stocks, breeding lines and weedy species.

Experts say this forms the genetic basis for the improvement and selection of crops through breeding.

This science of seed gene-banking-storing seeds under dry and cold conditions is an important of conservation plant genetic resources which help farmers and breeders to select best accessions to build resilience to climate change in agriculture.

The materials from the SADC gene bank are also duplicated at Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Svalbard Archipelago in the North Pole as a risk mitigation measure for the region.

Dr Shava said there were now more than 38 000 duplications held at the global seed bank in Norway.

The global seed vault stores accessions in a safe and controlled environment to ensure their long-term safety and future viability. It now holds more than one million accessions.

Agricultural experts say fewer crop species are feeding the world than 50 years ago, raising concerns about the resilience of the global food system.

They warn that loss of diversity means more people dependent on a few key crops, leaving them more exposed to harvest failures. Higher consumption of energy-dense crops could also contribute to a global rise in heart disease and diabetes, they added.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the diversity of cultivated crops declined by 75 percent during the 20th Century and a third of today’s diversity could disappear by 2050.

Zimbabwe and other African countries are losing plant genetic material. Experts say plant genetic materials facing extinction in the region include labour-intensive crops such as bambara, green gram, sesame, round potato (Zulu potato) and a wide range of indigenous maize, sorghum and millet varieties.

Agricultural experts say the world’s agro-biodiversity is disappearing at an alarming rate and for several major crops, up to 80-90 percent losses in variety over the past century have been reported.

SADC countries have lost a number of local crop varieties due to neglect, erosion of local indigenous knowledge systems, promotion of improved varieties, lack of incentives for locally adapted crops and recognition of the keepers of crop diversity, among other factors.

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