Collection, Characterization and Conservation of Agrobiodiversity

Background

Agricultural biodiversity, also known as agro-biodiversity or genetic resource, includes:

  • Crop varieties, livestock breeds, fish species and undomesticated (wild) resources within field, forest, and rangeland and including tree products, wild animals hunted for food and plants and animals in aquatic ecosystems;
  • Natural undomesticated species involved with production ecosystems that support food cultivators including soil micro-biota, pollinators, bees, butterflies, earthworms, and natural predators of pests;
  • Undomesticated species in the larger environment that are part of ecosystems that support food production. These could be agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic ecosystems.

Agro-biodiversity is the result of the interaction between the environment, genetic resources and the management systems used by people. Thus, agro-biodiversity encompasses the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are necessary for sustaining key functions of the agro-ecosystem, including its structure and processes for, and in support of, food production and food security. Local knowledge and culture can therefore be considered as integral parts of agro-biodiversity, because it is the human activity of agriculture that shapes and conserves this biodiversity.

The more crop varieties and species a farmer can source his family’s food from the more secure their food will be. It is well established that the traditional practice of maintaining genetic diversity in the field is the key to long-term sustainable food production. In agriculture and forestry, genetic diversity can enhance production in all agricultural and ecosystem zones. Several varieties can be planted in the same field to minimise crop failure, and new varieties can be bred to maximise production or adapt to adverse or changing conditions. For this to happen it is essential that agro-biodiversity must be conserved against erosion, and used sustainably.

Unfortunately, genetic erosion is happening at a more rapid pace in developing countries because of the somewhat faulty planning to bring about change and increase productivity. Above all, agro biodiversity which is genetic diversity related to agriculture, is threatened not because of overuse but because it is not used and nurtured as much as it should be.

Agro-biodiversity In India

At least 167 crop species and 320 wild relatives of crops have their primary, secondary or regional centers of diversity here in India making it a mega diversity country endowed with a tremendous wealth of agricultural biodiversity along with associated indigenous knowledge to nurture and use the agro-biodiversity. The two go together and lessons learnt in the field of conservation reflect that the loss of one leads to the loss of other. This is one of the prime concerns in agricultural biodiversity where considerable efforts have been targeted to conserve genetic wealth through germplasm collections and storage. While these efforts are critical in the wake of large scale transformation of agricultural landscapes and loss of genetic material, efforts need to be up scaled to attend to the causes that are driving these changes.

In the country it is the adivasi-inhabited regions (tribal areas), which are the centers of domestication and of remarkable genetic diversity in food crops. Wild relatives of crops have contributed significantly to agriculture, particularly in disease resistance. Thanks to wild wheat varieties, domesticated wheat now resists fungal diseases, drought, winter cold, and heat. Rice gets its resistance to two of Asia’s four main rice diseases from a single sample of rice from central India, Oryza nivara.

It is estimated that just a few decades ago, Indian farmers grew more than 30,000 different varieties of rice, but in another 15 years, this enormous diversity will be reduced to no more than 50 varieties, with the top ten accounting for over three-quarters of the subcontinents’ rice acreage (Mooney, 1983).

Unless their seeds are replanted by the farmers, these outstanding varieties will be lost forever. Many of these “heirloom” varieties (seeds passed down from generation to generation) are still maintained by gardeners, farmers and adivasis in isolated rural and tribal areas, and are often available in the kitchen gardens, courtyards or home gardens.

Today, due to rural-urban migration, tribal acculturation and extinction, and constantly shrinking rural populations, older farmers and seed savers often cannot find anyone who will continue growing their living “heirlooms”. The rapid disappearance of many traditional varieties of grain and vegetable crops (rice, wheat, sugarcane, cotton, minor millets, pulses etc.) has been described as a botanical holocaust and these losses have a large role in contributing to the food crisis that India faces.

Tracing the Loss of Agro-biodiversity

The erosion of crop varieties can be traced back to the Green Revolution. The reduction in crop diversity due to the Green Revolution has been documented for many crops.

In China the number of cultivated wheat varieties declined from 10,000 in 1949 to only 1000 by the 1970′s. Other studies have documented the loss of rice varieties in South Asia. Some 62 per cent of rice varieties in Bangladesh, 74 per cent in Indonesia, and 75 per cent in Sri Lanka are derived from just one maternal parent. Yet, from 1930 to 1980 in the US, the use of genetic diversity by plant breeders, accounted for at least half of the doubling in yields of rice, barley, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and sugarcane; a threefold increase in tomato yields; and a fourfold increase in yields of corn, sorghum, and potato.

India, home to a huge genetic diversity in rice has seen the loss of several thousand rice varieties. Adoption of new varieties and breeds, and recommended package of practices (irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers, cross-breeding) have contributed to the loss of considerable biodiversity from farmers’ fields in large parts of the country. The economic effects of globalization on limiting crop choice are compounding the Green Revolution effect of reducing the diversity available to farmers.

GENE CAMPAIGN’s POSITION

Every year changing climate is impacting India’s crop zones, reducing the production potential of its soils and crops, and moving the country closer to food insecurity. The most hard-hit are the millions of small farmers who are losing their resources and their ability to withstand bad harvests.

India is rich in crop genetic diversity because our farmers maintain several hundred species of the same crop. Despite the Green Revolution, significant diversity is still available. There is an urgent need now to intensify and expand the use of plant genetic diversity and agro biodiversity in general to increase choices and access to diversity in crops, and to maintain and restore healthy ecosystems to ensure sustainable food, production over the long term.

Agricultural biodiversity, especially crop genetic diversity has been recognized as an effective strategy to minimize risks against climate change, pest and disease. Diversity in a farmer’s field provides insurance over a longer period of time despite claims that it may lower productivity in the short term. For the rural poor cultivating small holdings, diversity in the agro ecosystems provides important sources of supplementary food like natural plant foods (saag) and fish and animals that grow near fields and are available for free.

Food production has to become sustainable. And the key to making it so, it has been understood for some time now, is through genetic diversity of crops and the discovery of genes that adapt to changes in climate. Genes that are drought tolerant, salinity tolerant, high or low temperature tolerant or those that are resistant to fungal disease or sucking pests and insects can only be found in traditional crop varieties. So, to have access to them it is essential that genetic diversity in crop varieties is maintained. Other than maintaining crop varieties at the National Gene Bank, not much is being done in by the government in a sustained way.

This is where civil society needs to take this up on a war footing so farmers are able to create a huge pool of genetic wealth from where specific genes can be discovered and newer more ‘climate adaptable’ crops created.

Gene Campaign’s Activities

Traditional varieties of rice are being collected from the eastern Indian region considered the Centre of Origin of rice. Collections from Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and Assam are conserved in twelve field level Zero Energy Gene-Seed Banks in Jharkhand. The Gene- Seed Banks are maintained by village samitis supported by Gene Campaign.

A similar village level Gene-Seed bank has been established in Uttarakhand where seeds of traditional varieties of millets, legumes, maize, rice and wheat are conserved.

A. Conserving traditional varieties of rice

Gene Campaign lays special emphasis on collecting and conserving traditional varieties of rice because it is an important staple food, and because India is the Centre of its Origin. The greatest genetic diversity of rice in the world is found here.

The Eastern Indian region consisting of Orissa, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh constitute the primary Centre of Origin of rice, in other words, its birthplace.

This is the region where several thousand years ago, rural and tribal communities bred rice from wild grasses and where large numbers of land races and farmers’ varieties are found.  To prepare for the challenges that will confront rice cultivation, Gene Campaign ensures that its conservation efforts are focused in areas where the largest number of genes can be identified and saved for future use.

More than 2300 varieties of rice have been characterised for properties such as drought tolerance, disease resistance, digestibility, aroma, and yield. About 100 varieties of vegetables and legumes and 15 varieties of millets have also been characterized.

The effort to conserve of agro-biodiversity serves important purposes. It makes available for farmers traditional seed of crops locally adapted to withstand diverse climactic conditions. It supplies well characterised germplasm to develop crop varieties more suited to the changing climate, and it acts as a repository of Farmers’ Crop Varieties for registration with the National Plant Variety Authority.

So far more than 2479 varieties of rice have been collected and curated these include Aromatic, Drought Tolerant, High Yielding, Low Yielding, Medium Yielding, Short Duration, Medium Duration, Long Duration, Flood Tolerant, Disease Resistant, Disease Susceptible, Lodging and Non-Lodging varieties of rice.

These samples of rice agro-biodiversity are being made available to the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) for conservation and future breeding programs for farmers.

In the process of collecting, characterising and conserving agro-biodiversity, as a first step Gene Campaign takes up a series of familiarization visits to establish contacts with local people, understand the agro-climatic and physical features of the region, the natural resources, specifically the bioresources and agriculture to develop the details of project implementation. Given below are the steps followed:

1. Understanding the local context of agro-biodiversity

Developing an understanding of how agro-biodiversity is perceived and valued by different sections of the rural community, especially women, places its conservation in a locally relevant context and makes the community partners in this crucial exercise of agro-biodiversity conservation. For this, information is collected from the community on climate change and its impact on their agriculture, the local ways to adapt crops to the changed situation and the community’s perception of agro-biodiversity.

These interactions enable the GC team to:
i) Map the

  • Biodiversity and natural resources of the area.
  • Sources of income of local people.
  • Activities of extension workers.

ii) Understand constraints to the people’s economic development.

iii) Profile local agriculture systems

  • Cropping systems
  • Cropping patterns
  • Tradition of mono-cropping and multiple cropping systems
  • Sowing and harvesting times
  • Crop productivity
  • Profitable crops that are prevalent in the area
  • Prospects of increasing crop production.
  • Nature of soil, its types and soil related problems.

iv) Study

  • Use of chemical and bio-fertilizers, its cost and effects on crops and soil etc.
  • Prevalence of pest and use of pesticides.
  • Irrigation systems, water harvesting techniques and problems related to irrigation.

v) Evaluate quality of seed used, seed cost and hybrid used.

2. Mobilizing community to collect, conserve and use agro-biodiversity.

Gene Campaign teams along with the trained local youth conduct meetings with village community members and discuss with them the importance of protecting indigenous crops and agro-biodiversity extensively. The discussion includes understanding and analysing:

  • The importance of indigenous knowledge.
  • The impact of green revolution on traditional agriculture system.
  • The cost & benefit difference between using hybrid varieties, high yielding varieties and indigenous crops.
  • The concept and importance of community gene – seed banks: that setting up a gene bank will ultimately serve the purpose of a seed bank, which could function as a grain bank in case of surplus seed production, for the farmers in case of future turbulence or drought.

Apart from group meetings, farming families are also contacted individually to ensure complete reach and maximum participation, especially those living in remote villages.

3. Training communities to collect & characterize agro-biodiversity.

Many farm men, women as well as NGO partners have been trained in the collection, characterization and documentation of agro biodiversity across the states.

Trainings are conducted in collaboration with the agriculture university of the respective states or with external experts together with Gene Campaign’s agriculture scientists. The training programmes cover the ‘how to’ of:

Crop variety seed sample collection:

  • Identification and selection of healthy and pure seeds.
  • Identification and testing the viability of seeds liable for germination.
  • Documenting local experiences of seed selection.

Characterization of seed samples:

  • Characterizing the collection of seed samples using standard forms and approved descriptors.
  • Maintaining the integrity of the seed collections by proper curation of the collection, weeding out mixtures, and exact and accurate labelling.
  • Setting up gene seed banks with appropriate indigenous and modern methods of storage of seeds and food grains including conditions such as water proofing, light proofing and pest control.

Community-based administration of the material in the gene/seed bank democratically and equitably.

Multiplication of seed samples to create seed source for farmers, developing a protocol for seed dissemination to farmers in tough times and return of seed from farmers to seed bank.

Refreshing seed in field plots every year to retain the viability of the seed stored in the bank.

Indigenous and modern methods of protecting seeds and food grains from rodents and pests.

4. Collecting & Characterising Local Agro-biodiversity

Collection of crop genetic diversity from interior regions, its characterisation and scientific conservation not only increases seed choice for the local community, it also provides well-defined germplasm for breeding programs seeking valuable genetic traits to develop new varieties suited to altered climatic conditions.

The process followed:

  1. Identifying good quality seeds: To obtain pure and healthy seeds, attention is given to the crop cycle:


    • While the crop is growing
    • When the crop is fully ready for harvesting
    • At the time of storage

  1. Selecting seeds: Healthy seeds are sorted out of the harvested grain. The sorting work is mainly done by women. According to indigenous practices, the seeds are separated by winnowing wherein bigger sized seeds are separated by hand and those which are small are sorted out through sieving.

  2. Documenting the knowledge of the farming community about the properties of the traditional varieties: This knowledge, which is held by the farming community, is extensive and detailed and documenting it faithfully provides a wealth of information about the genetic properties of crop varieties. It is farmers who reveal whether the variety performs well under drought conditions, is resistant to disease or has a short or long duration to maturity. This valuable information tells the scientists which traits to look for in which varieties.

  3. Characterisation of seeds according to descriptors:

    1. Name of the variety / landrace (upland or lowland)

    2. Soil type

    3. irrigation requirement

    4. Seed sowing time, flowering time, maturity time, harvesting time

    5. Quantity of fertilizer (chemical or FYM)

    6. Insects, pests and diseases of root, stem, leaves

    7. Reaction to pests, drought, extreme temperatures, water logging, etc

    8. Cooking quality

    9. Aroma and medicinal properties of the particular sample.

  1. Assessment & evaluation of farmer preferences is made for traits in rice and other crops for use as starting material for farmer variety selection and future Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) programs.

  1. Cleaning of seeds – After harvesting, the seeds are cleaned as they are likely to contain mud and soil, infected seeds, weeds or seeds of other varieties. Also, husk or twigs in the collection may invite insects and pests. There are two ways in which seeds are cleaned.

    1. Seeds of pulpy / fleshy / fibrous vegetables / fruits like tomato, pumpkin, bottle gourd, khaksa, kundri etc are taken out of the pulp / flesh and cleaned and rubbed thoroughly with water and then dried in the sun for about a week.


    1. Seeds of grains, legumes and certain vegetables are cleaned by manual sorting or winnowing. In the latter method, immature and unhealthy seeds and husk are segregated and used as food or fodder.

  1. Testing seeds for germination: There are simple methods to test the germination potential of seeds. Small plots of 100 seeds are sowed in sandy soil to test the germination potential. If the germination is 90-95%, the seed is considered to be good and suitable for sowing.

Methods of determining germination potential:

  • Seeds of different varieties of vegetables and legumes when kept immersed in water overnight, germinate fast.

  • The central rib of banana leaves is slit and seeds are kept in it and tied. The stem is left for 4 days. On the 5th day if the germination is around 90% then the seed can be considered pure and healthy. The same can be done with other fleshy leaves such as that of ‘ol’ and cucurbits.

  • The seed can be kept in sand but it has to be frequently watered.

  • 1 ltr of cow urine is diluted in 5 ltrs of water. A sack full of seeds is immersed in the solution and then dried in shade. This improves the germination potential of seeds.

  • Paddy seeds, when immersed in water for 20 – 24 hours and then dried in shade for 2 days, germinate well and yield healthy crops.

  1. Drying seeds: Seeds are properly dried prior to storage to avoid fungus and insect attack. All seed samples are scientifically processed to reduce moisture level and stored in glass jars for medium term storage and in baskets for short-term storage.

Processing for storage entails drying the seed samples to bring down the moisture content to 7%. This prolongs the viability of the seed and allows storage at ambient temperatures. After drying, the samples are sealed in aluminium pouches or in heavy gauge poly-pouches for long term storage.

B) Conservation through Zero Energy Gene Banks

Agro-biodiversity thus collected and characterized is conserved by in Zero Energy gene-seed banks that are community owned and managed at the village level.

The gene-seed banks are a reliable source of seeds for local farmers and help to support local food security. The crop genetic diversity stored in these banks offer a range of varieties for Participatory Plant Breeding Programs that take advantage of farmers’ knowledge to jointly breed improved varieties locally suited to local conditions.

The role of gene banks

  1. They act as a repository of Farmer Varieties. According to the newly enacted post WTO law, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act, 2001, (PPV-FR), farmer varieties, i.e. the traditional crop varieties that have been bred by farming communities, can be registered by the Plant Variety Authority to recognize their ownership as their breeders.

  1. For the short term they act as a grain bank where the seed material that is getting old and therefore not viable for cultivation, can be collected to form a grain bank from where poor families can borrow rice in the lean period, to return it when their next harvest comes in.

  2. For the medium term they act as a seed bank to be a seed source of traditional varieties that farmers in the region cultivate. The formal agriculture system in the country like the ICAR or the regional agricultural universities do not have any research programs or seed support systems for the traditional varieties since their emphasis is almost solely on HYVs and hybrids.

  1. For the long term, as a gene bank that contains the genetic material of the local agro-biodiversity that will be used to search for genes that plant breeders will need in future, to breed new varieties to cope with the biotic and abiotic challenges that Indian agriculture will face in future. New pests and disease, altered climatic conditions, paucity of water and changing temperatures due to climatic change are some of the obvious challenges of tomorrow.

The Advantage of Zero Energy Seed Banks over Cold Storage Banks

The international network of Gene Banks consists of cold Gene Banks which are very different from farmer level field gene-seed banks. The former is an energy intensive bank maintained at low temperatures, for long-term storage of genetic material. The latter, a model promoted by Gene Campaign, is a labour-intensive bank with no energy costs. Both are for ex situ conservation of agro biodiversity.









Cold Storage Gene/Seed banks

Zero energy Seed/gene banks at villages


The monthly electricity bill of the National Gene Bank in New Delhi is over 20 lakh rupees (approx $45,000 ) a month. This is predominantly for the cost of maintaining low temperatures.


No such costs as seeds are stored at room temperature.

Huge carbon footprint due to release of GHGs from air conditioning

No carbon footprint

Capital–intensive.

Labour intensive with minimal capital to build a simple room

Located at central place and administered by the bureaucracy, access to seeds is a long process.

Located within the community who owns and administers and uses the bank according to need.

The material frozen in the cold Gene Bank does not get a chance to adapt to the local climate and when it is taken out at a time of crisis, it may or may not have the adaptive capacity to provide an efficient crop under the prevailing conditions.

Multiplication and renewal of the seed samples is done by a cycle of growing out each sample every alternate year so the seed retains its viability. The routine growing out of the seed samples exposes the crop varieties to the prevailing weather and climate conditions, helping them to adjust and adapt. The seed material that is returned to the bank after every grow-out season is more adapted to the environment, which includes the climate as well as pests and disease.


a. Setting up a Zero-energy Gene-seed Bank

Zero-energy seed-gene banks are simple light, air and moisture-proof structures in villages where processed seed is stored at ambient temperatures without the need for air conditioning.

The seed samples of the traditional varieties of rice, legumes, oilseeds and vegetables that are collected from the fields of farmers are stored according to the well-laid out conservation guidelines that ensure:.

  • Protection from moisture by using air tight storage containers.


  • Protection from rodents, termite and other insects.


  • Correct storage of seeds, as it is crucial to the food security of families since it determines the nature of the next crop. The core agro biodiversity collection (with back-ups) is stored in glass jars and larger seed volumes are stored in baskets for multiplication to create seed source for farmers.

  • Viability of the agro biodiversity collection by growing out and refreshing the seed in a cycle determined by the seed viability of the particular species.

b. Managing a Gene-seed Bank

Because the Zero-energy Banks are located in the village, they are owned by the people. Village youth committees supervised by village elders run the Banks. The seed in the Bank is accessed every season by the farmers who return three times the seed they take when their harvest comes in.

Block level meetings are called to set up Gene Bank Management Committees in each block. These committees called Beej Bank Sanchalan Samitis have been set up from amongst the volunteers, with a coordinator each, to administer the gene-seed Banks.

The Committees have begun working under the guidance of Gene Campaign. Committee members are trained by scientists from National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) to correctly clean, dry and store their seed and scientifically control pests, using both indigenous and new technologies. Along with collection, processing and storage, members are responsible for distribution of samples among farmers for seed renewal and for returning seeds for cultivation in farmers’ fields. They ensure that the core collection of the Bank is multiplied in carefully designed plots in farmers’ fields.

The banks contains seed samples of traditional varieties of rice, millets, legumes and vegetables collected from farmers’ fields and characterized by identifying their properties. There are over four hundred crop varieties in the banks. This raw collection has to be refined from time to time by weeding out duplications and non-viable seeds or those carrying disease.

More than 2679 samples of traditional varieties of rice, millets, legumes and vegetables have been collected, characterized and processed for storage in the Gene-Seed Banks. These consist of 2479 varieties of rice, 8 varieties of millets, 90 of legumes and 72 varieties of vegetables.

C) Identification of useful genes

The germplasm in the collection (of the Gene-seed banks) is evaluated for drought and disease tolerance, tolerance to high temperatures, elevated CO2 and other traits.

Approximately 324 varieties of rice from the collections at Jharkhand were evaluated by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi. This evaluation resulted in the discovery of two new genes, which were found to be resistant to the Bacterial Leaf Blight. New genes that confer resistance against the BLB were found in the collection of traditional rice varieties. These were found in the varieties of Hardimuri, Kala Jeera, Bhatind, Sitwa Dhan, Sarna Gora, Chaina Gora, Lamba Asari and Jhulur.

 

The exciting discovery is that neither of these varieties carries the genes XA 13 and XA 21 which are known to confer resistance to BLB. It is obvious that the farming communities have conserved new genes, so far unknown, that confer BLB resistance in rice. The varieties are being further tested by the IARI group, to characterize the new genes.

This discovery has very great significance for the future of rice breeding. And for this conservation effort, the farming communities from Jharkhand are entitled to claim recognition in the form of theGenome Savior Award.

Drought Tolerant Properties Found in Rice Varieties

125 farmers’ varieties were screened by Birsa Agricultural University in upland condition for drought tolerance. Some promising genotypes were identified, which can be used for breeding and will serve as good parents for the development of drought tolerant lines

Darikasar, Biri, Hemo, Bachakalamdani Bara, Safed Dhan, Khair Bhojan, Karhani-2, Dudhkalma and Jagarnath were found to be tolerant to drought. This has significance for rice cultivation in an era of global warming and climate change

NOTE: Sharing of farmers’ material for research per the Convention on Biological Diversity


Materials have been shared with research stations for germplasm evaluation following the conditions of the Convention on Biological Diversity. A MoU has been signed by Gene Campaign on behalf of the local communities, after taking the consent of the representatives of communities. According to the MoU, no patents can be taken on any material developed from the research and evaluation and the germplasm will continue to be the property of the local communities.

D. Developing strategies for in-situ & ex-situ GENE conservation

In situ conservation

There is recognition that although gene-seed banks are important, large scale conservation of genetic resources is possible only in the field (in situ). One of the major reasons for genetic erosion appears to be the farmers’ preference for high yielding varieties, which increase his income, sometimes significantly.

Much speculation exists about the reasons for genetic erosion and the potential for in situ conservation. Any realistic effort at on-farm conservation will only be possible if the farmer sees some benefit arising out of expanding the genetic base in his field and growing varieties other than high yielding variety. Gene Campaign realizes that no in situ conservation is possible unless widespread cooperation of the farming community is ensured. In this regard it is doing the following:

  • Selecting representative locations and conducting surveys to elicit the responses of farmers with respect to on-farm conservation. And comparing the responses of farmers in rain-fed and irrigated areas and areas of high and low input agriculture.

  • Compiling the results of the survey and their indication as a report and submitting it to the Ministry of Agriculture with recommendations for implementing in situ conservation in the field.

In the course of interacting with farmers an increasing number of them are showing interest in cultivating traditional rice at least in part of their land. In 2005 over 1350 farmers had taken 600 traditional rice varieties from the Gene-Seed Banks, in 2006, 1730 farmers have taken 815 traditional rice varieties to cultivate in their fields and in as of 2013, many farmers are cultivating various traditional rice varieties.

These farmers also host seed multiplication renewal plots to refresh and renew the seed in the Banks. Seed samples collected from farmers are multiplied to provide greater volumes of viable and healthy seeds to a larger number of farmers. The multiplication work is carried out by farmers as well as by Gene Campaign.

More than 415 varieties were multiplied in the demonstration plot of Birsa Agricultural University, Jharkhand to increase the seed quantity, conduct morpho-agronomic characterization of the varieties, and organize field training programs for master trainers and others.

Multiplication and in situ conservation of crop varieties:


Ex situ Conservation

Ex situ conservation in gene banks is an important method of conserving genetic resources in a small space and for long periods of time. These gene banks are an expensive proposition since they have to be maintained at cold temperatures. For medium term storage 5 degree C and for long-term storage – 20 degree C is required. This means heavy energy costs. In India, given the power breakdowns, captive power has to be generated to keep the gene bank functional, making it still more expensive.

Given the crucial importance of preserving the nation’s biological wealth, new and innovative methods are being explored to create gene banks. India has access to permanently frozen areas like glaciers which could serve as natural gene banks where nature maintains cold temperatures.

Gene Campaign has been recommending the exploration of two options that can serve as natural gene banks: the Siachen glacier & the Indian station in the Antarctic

Both are permafrost areas where India already maintains highly trained manpower, thus obviating the extra cost of specially training personnel for this purpose. In the case of Siachen, the Indian army, in Antarctica, teams of scientists who already man experimental stations are potentially available. It would not require much to train this manpower to label and store biological samples and maintain them.

By making this work, India will have unlimited options for storing its genetic material and show the way to others, making an enormous contribution to the global efforts of conserving the bioresource base of the planet in a way that is affordable and sustainable. Informal discussions with senior Army officers reveal great interest in the possibility of Siachen having such a bank even as they acknowledge that this will have to be a political decision taken jointly by India and Pakistan.

The Antarctic option is easier since no other country is involved. India maintains research stations and teams of scientists who visit regularly to conduct experiments. It would be worthwhile to conduct a pilot study to explore the possibility of setting up a full fledged gene bank in the future.

Gene Campaign plans to conduct meetings together with the Ministry of Ocean Development and National Bureaus maintaining plant, animal and fish genetic resources soon. After this exercise, together with the NBPGR, Gene Campaign will make a joint presentation to the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Ocean Development for proceeding with the implementation of the first stage of the pilot project.

Note: In this connection, GC will invite the forest department (Ministry of Environment & Forests) to explore the possibility of creating a gene bank for tree germplasm, an area that has been almost totally neglected so far.