Did you know that crop diversity is one of the world’s most important natural resources? The United Nations has recognized that conserving crop diversity is necessary to feed the planet in a sustainable way. Read more about this in this interview with Marie Haga, the Executive Director of the Crop Diversity Trust.
This is an interview with the Executive Director of the Crop Diversity Trust in January 2019:
Ms. Haga, what is the main goal of the Global Crop Diversity Trust?
Our main goal is to safeguard a particular subset of biodiversity, namely crop diversity. It includes the 4.500 different types of potatoes, the 35.000 types of maize, the 120.000 types of wheat, and so on. I think it‘s fair to say that – and probably one of the least recognized. While the world has already lost a tremendous amount of crop diversity, there is a lot that has been conserved, and a lot that can be better conserved. We want to support these conservation efforts, but not for their own sake: we want to ensure crop diversity is used to. That means crop breeders – be they scientists or farmers – having access to it so they can develop new crops that are more productive, resilient and nutritious. These days, it‘s very important that we are able to adapt potato, for example, to higher temperatures, or rice to new pests and diseases. In that sense, crop diversity is the raw material needed to future-proof agriculture. Without it, we’re going to struggle.
The preservation of crop diversity is extremely important for the future of mankind. Why doesn’t this subject receive as much publicity as other issues, like climate change?
One reason is that the concept is, perhaps, a bit more complicated to grasp than climate change. Many people have probably experienced extreme weather or seen it on the news; they may understand that it means challenges for agriculture. But how many people have seen the inside of a seedbank? How many people know there are so many different kinds of potatoes? Not many – and even fewer understand why that diversity is so crucial. But I do feel that the state of public awareness is changing. In 2015, the United Nations – through the Sustainable Development Goals - recognized the importance of conserving crop diversity. It was a great moment, signaling its emergence as a mainstream issue. We see it regularly now – businesses, chefs, celebrities and others getting in touch to learn more about how they can help.
In order to ensure availability of food in the future, as many different varieties of crops as possible have to be conserved. At present, around 1 Million varieties of crops are safely stored in seed banks - is this only a beginning?
There are, in fact, an estimated 7 million samples conserved in seed banks worldwide, of which we believe around two million to be unique. It’s an enormous wealth of diversity. The main challenges are that many of these seedbanks face funding shortfalls, equipment failures – even the risk of flooding and earthquakes. Some of them contain the sole samples of a particular crop variety – the result of thousands of years of evolution and selection by farmers. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good – together with all their potentially useful characteristics. The Crop Trust is working to put some of these seedbanks on a sustainable financial footing, as well as helping them respond to emergencies when they arise. But the bigger picture really drives home the importance of seedbanks: Around 60 percent our calories come from only four crops - rice, wheat, maize and soybean. That leaves us extremely vulnerable; it’s too few eggs and not enough baskets. If just one of those crops were to fail – due to a drought or pest outbreak – the effects would be felt globally. Fortunately, there are two fundamental ways to make our food system less precarious. The first is to ensure all the different varieties of those crops are conserved in seedbanks and available for research. That would enable crop breeders to develop those new varieties that can withstand all kinds of challenges. The second is to introduce a greater range of crops onto farms and into our diets in order to help spread – and reduce - the risk of failed harvests. Again, seedbanks play a pivotal role here.
Let’s look at rice: Why is it so important to conserve as many as different varieties of rice as possible in seed banks?
It‘s because each of the 160.000 types of rice has certain advantages. One might be able to withstand a particular pest or disease; another could tolerate higher temperatures, or contain more essential nutrients. A great example comes from the 1970s, when Asian rice farmers were experiencing huge crop losses due to the brown planthopper – a bug that spreads a particular rice virus. Scientists screened thousands of rice samples held in seedbanks and found only one with resistance to the virus. But one was all they needed. This was crossbred to produce a new, resistant variety that farmers quickly adopted. Let’s not forget that around 3.5 billion people – roughly half the world’s population - eat rice every day, and that’s expected to rise to over 5 billion by 2050. That’s a lot of people depending on a single crop – and who knows when the next major pest or disease will appear. By safeguarding all rice diversity, we give scientists and farmers the best possible chance of adapting rice production to the challenges ahead.
How successful is the work of the Global Crop Diversity Trust?
We were established in 2004 and so we’re still a relatively young organization. But over the last 15 years, we have developed very clear thinking on what it takes to safeguard crop diversity. At our core is our endowment fund, which is made up of contributions from national governments, foundations, and, increasingly, donations from businesses and individuals. The fund accrues interest, which we use to support crop conservation activities around the world. These include supporting the operations of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the iconic seedbank in near the North Pole, which contains the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. Also, last year we committed to fully funding the essential operations of the biggest rice seedbank in the world – forever – using interest accrued from the endowment fund. This was a huge and historic step for us. We estimate that an endowment fund worth USD 850 million would generate enough interest to provide this kind of “in perpetuity” funding to all of the world’s most important seedbanks for food and agriculture. That would safeguard the basis of our food supply forever. It’s a relatively small amount of money for such a huge and long-lasting impact – just think how much it costs to build a single soccer stadium. Right now, the endowment fund is worth close to USD 300 million - including a recent low-interest loan from the German bank, KfW. So, we’re around one-third of the way there, but still have a long way to go. The German government has been a generous supporter of our work, for which we are extremely grateful.
Conserving the world’s crop diversity does not come for free. What is your strategy to raise funds for your work?
We’ve undertaken a series of studies – so we know what it takes, financially and technically, to safeguard the world’s crop diversity. It takes only USD 34 million dollars a year! We’re seeking greater involvement from the private sector, for example, by encouraging certain businesses to invest in conserving crops that are important to them. If you’re, say, a coffee company, and you want to be in the coffee sector for the long run, you really should invest in conserving the crop that is the basis for your whole business model. The best part is that we know exactly what to do in order to safeguard coffee, and we know how much it will cost: just USD 1 million per year. That’s small change to some of the huge, global players in the coffee sector. Even better, a one-time payment of USD 25 million into the Crop Trust endowment fund would accrue USD 1 million annually – enough to conserve coffee forever. We’ve developed crop-specific conservation strategies for a range of important crops, showing exactly how to do it and how much each will cost.
Why, from an economic point of view, do you think the US$34 Million that the Crop Trust requires per year is a good investment? What is the return on investment (ROI) for a donor?
It depends on how you define a “return”. For a coffee company worth millions of dollars, you could argue that the return on investment of conserving coffee would be the value of their entire business, for as long as it runs. Funding the conservation of coffee or any other crop also brings public relations value to the organization, which may be harder to measure but nonetheless a positive return. Another way to look at crop conservation is as an insurance policy – you make a relatively small payment to ensure something of much greater value is protected. What’s the return on investment for an insurance policy? Peace of mind. But of course, investing in conserving crop diversity is also money well spent because we have a responsibility to make sure that we can feed the world with enough nutritious food today and in the future. That’s a return on investment that’s truly priceless.
What technology is required to conserve crops?
Safeguarding crop diversity is not rocket science. Many crops can be conserved by taking the seeds, drying them and keeping them in a cool place. If you go into a seedbank you will see boxes and envelopes of seeds. A lot of seeds have to be planted every now and then, to make sure they are still “viable” and to replenish the stocks for conservation. But there are seeds of important plants that can’t be conserved in this way, like coffee, for example. If you freeze a coffee bean for a long time, then defrost it and replant it, it won’t sprout. So, we have to conserve coffee by having what is known as field collections – these are areas where the coffee plants are grown outdoors as full plants. Some our or most important and favourite plants require special conservation techniques - tea, banana, coconut, cacao, avocado, apple, potato no name a few. What’s also really important to us is that the seedbanks doing this work are able to quickly share their samples with those who request them, to support crop breeding.
You are based in Bonn/Germany and for Germany, the potato is an important ingredient in many national dishes. But where does the potato come from originally, not Germany, right??
Haha, no – potatoes originally come from the mountains of Peru…
Sticking with this example: How could, for instance, a potato lover support the work of the Crop Trust?
Since we work to support the conservation of the 4.500 varieties of potatoes, a contribution to the Crop Trust endowment fund would be one way. Donations, both large and small, can be made through our website. We are currently developing a crowdsourcing campaign as well, which we hope to launch later in 2019, and through that we hope to engage the broader public in the effort to conserve some of the most important crops. Another fun way is to buy a copy of the recently released board game, Catan: Crop Trust. This was the result of a collaboration between Catan GmbH and the Crop Trust to create a new take on Settlers of Catan. All profits from the sale of the Catan: Crop Trust game go straight to the Crop Trust endowment fund, helping our work to conserve crop diversity. These are just a few of the initiatives underway to open up the fascinating world of crop conservation to the wider public.
How do you plan to get more potential investors to support the work of the Crop Trust?
We have developed an investment-sharing facility with German fund manager DWS, whereby financial investors can invest in a certain share class of sustainable stocks, with the dividend going to the Crop Trust. We’re very close to having the tax reduction system in place, which allows investors to benefit from a reduction in their income tax. We would be delighted to speak more with companies – we recently developed a new conservation strategy. In 2019, we’ll invite companies to a meeting where we explain how important it is to safeguard the apple diversity. We intend to go from crop to crop – in order to reach our target.
You have been a government minister in your home country, Norway – what is your personal motivation for now dedicating all your energy towards achieving the mandate of the Crop Trust?
My first job in life was growing cabbage. I grew up on a small farm in Norway and I’ve always been in touch with agriculture – also in my political work for the Centre Party in Norway, which is traditionally the farmers’ party. I obviously have “green genes” and it was wonderful to go back to international work after being in politics. Now it’s great for me to focus on one core issue where we really can make a difference, where there is a clear target, and growing momentum to achieve it. Just knowing that this is a fundamentally important work for mankind is extremely satisfying. It is actually the most satisfying job I’ve ever had!
About the Global Crop Diversity Trust
The Global Crop Diversity Trust is an international organization with headquarters in Bonn, Germany whose mission is to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide.
Interested in joining the Global Crop Diversity Trust?