A decentralised seed conservation system could preserve agrobiodiversity

Agrobiodiversity is crucial for global food security, but conservation is insufficient. We must draw from existing genetic wealth to preserve biodiversity.
Photo : Alamy

By Roberto Papa

Roberto Papa is the coordinator of the INCREASE project and a full professor in agricultural genetics at the Università Politecnica delle Marche (UNIVPM)

19 Dec 2022

This year has made the progressive worsening of the climate crisis visible to all. The associated environmental crisis is characterised by a radical reduction of biodiversity planetwide. We must act, and we must do so quickly.

In addition to stopping the destruction of natural environments and biodiversity, reducing C02 emissions, rationing water use, and reducing pollution and land consumption, we need more efficient and productive agri-food systems, which can be built by embracing an ecological focus and improving agrobiodiversity.

While agrobiodiversity and agricultural genetic resources are crucial for global food security, their conservation is insufficient. Modern agricultural production depends on only a few species and varieties, which makes crops more vulnerable to pests, disease and severe climate events. We should instead be drawing from the existing genetic wealth preserved in seed banks and putting these varieties to use.

We should be drawing from the existing genetic wealth preserved in seed banks and putting these varieties to use

That is the goal of the INCREASE project, an innovative, decentralised approach to seed conservation. We want to improve the management and evaluation of genetic resources as well as encourage their use, which in turn will help conserve agrobiodiversity.

The project focuses on legumes that are characteristic of the European and Mediterranean food culture and agricultural traditions – common beans, chickpeas, lentils and lupin beans – and uses innovative technologies such as genomics, metabolomics and informatics to study a large amount of existing genetic diversity.

At the same time, we place participatory science at the centre of the project, involving stakeholders and citizens in the development of a new model and strategy for the conservation and use of seeds. The direct involvement of people on the ground is crucial to promote access to genetic resources and multiply their potential in agri-food systems.

Over the last two years, we have run the INCREASE citizen science experiment to test a decentralised conservation system. Through the INCREASE CSA app, anyone with a field, garden, balcony or terrace can participate. To date, nearly 8,000 people from across Europe have joined us.

Technology makes it easy to pull this off. Using our app, participants can select from over 1,000 local bean varieties, whose genomes have been sequenced as part of the BEAN_ADAPT project. The beans are mailed directly to their door. They then use the app again to input data and observations collected during the various stages of plant development, to the benefit of INCREASE researchers.

Crucially, to prevent biopiracy and create a conservation catalogue, participants sign the agreement for the transfer of seeds using the INCREASE CSA app, which is connected to the FAO system and guarantees full traceability. Through the same procedure, citizens can exchange seeds between themselves.

This project could be further enhanced by the engagement of local institutions such as botanical gardens, schools and urban agriculture associations as contact points. Several such organisations are already supporting INCREASE as part of its stakeholder consortium.

Once the beans are harvested, participants share their recipes and dishes on the app and can also contribute to our annual photo, video and recipe contest.

The INCREASE project is proposing a radical new approach to promoting the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. We see our project as complementing and building upon the work being done by seed banks – we want to expand access to this material and increase its use.