Major deposit in biodiversity bank to protect future of food

The future of the world's fourth most important crop will receive a boost thanks to plans by communities in Peru to send thousands of seeds for storage in a fortified vault, deep in an ice-clad Norwegian mountain.

News, 22 February 2011

The future of the world's fourth most important crop will receive a boost thanks to plans by communities in Peru to send thousands of seeds for storage in a fortified vault, deep in an ice-clad Norwegian mountain.

It will be the first time that any indigenous peoples have provided seeds to the Global Seed Vault, which has been designed to protect the variety of seeds that world farming depends on.

The vault — described as a "Noah’s Ark for seeds" — is a facility carved below the permafrost on an island in Norway's Svalbard archipelago. It has been designed as the ultimate insurance policy to protect the diversity on which global agriculture depends, from threats such as climate change.

An association of Peruvian indigenous communities is sending its potato seeds there as a service to all humanity, but is also calling for more support for efforts such as theirs, which protect an astonishing level of diversity within the fields.

"Sending our potato collection to Svalbard is a way to have an insurance policy for our seeds," says Lino Mamani, the head of the 'Papa Arariwa' (potato guardians) of the Potato Park, an area near the former Inca capital Cusco where local communities protect 1,500 native potato varieties. "If seeds are lost as a result of climate change, agricultural policies or lack of resources, our beloved potatoes may be re-established using seeds from Svalbard."

Potatoes are central to the culture, food security and of the Peru's Andean communities. Thanks to the Association of Communities of the Potato Park farmers can continually vary the varieties of potatoes they plant to adapt to changing environmental conditions, and protect their livelihoods and cultural heritage.

"We salute the safety net that Svalbard provides," says Mamani. "This project will ensure that our unique plant varieties — originally created, selected, protected and shared by Andean farmers — will be always accessible."

"But it should also be noted that we women, men and Apus (mountain deities) from the Potato Park have already achieved the huge task of maintaining over fifteen hundred varieties of potatoes within an ever changing environment."

Their successful bio-cultural approach to in situ conservation is now being linked to an important ex-situ initiative that will ensure the preservation of disease-free seeds which will be available for re-introduction as needed.

This is critical to the well being of indigenous communities and their ability to deal with profound changes to weather-dependent farming systems now being wrought by global climate change.

“National authorities and the international community should support the Potato Park as it has a concrete impact on the conservation of important food crops and the local economy,” says Alejandro Argumedo, Director of Asociacion ANDES, a Cusco-based indigenous NGO that is a partner of this initiative.

Though the Potato Park initiative has received recognition at the national and international levels, the investment and costs of its work have never been supported by national and international policies, despite its importance for global food security.

Argumedo says: "Peru's indigenous farming communities are owed an ecological debt by those who have benefitted commercially from the rich diversity of potatoes that the farmers have maintained and from their associated traditional knowledge."

Tom van der Lee, Advocacy & Campaigns Director Oxfam Novib, which has supported ANDES since 2008 adds: "The storage of the Andean potato seeds in the Svalbard gene bank is an historic service to all humanity and our global food security. This is important in times where potato diseases are more devastating as a consequence of mono-cultures. It will also be crucial because of the need to adapt to consequences of climate change."

Dr Michel Pimbert, Team Leader for Food and Agriculture at the International Institute for Environment and Development says: "Crop diversity in farmers' fields continues to be eroded and destroyed at an ever-increasing rate through mono-cropping, genetic engineering and intensive agriculture."

"Neither the existence of the Global Seed Vault itself — nor the Potato Park's contributions to it— lessen the need to support Indigenous farming communities’ own unique ways of conserving and enhancing biodiversity that is important for food and agriculture. It is ironic that large-scale gene banks attract attention and funding while local in situ conservation initiatives are typically overlooked, despite their historical and ongoing contributions to world food security."