Ukrainian agricultural research threatened by war

Iit was a moment of horror. In a video posted on the internet on May 14 Sergey Avramenko, a researcher at the National Plant Gene Bank of Ukraine, the tenth largest such facility in the world, ran his fingers through bags of charred seeds. “Everything turned to ashes,” he grieved.

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It later emerged that only one bank outpost suffered the bombardment that caused this destruction. The main seed hoard remains safe in an underground vault. But it may have been a close thing. The bank in question is located in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, and the defenders of this city have only just repelled the Russian forces that besieged it.

The precarious situation of the Kharkiv gene bank underscores the importance of protecting and conserving crop genetic material, as climate change and a growing and prosperous human population drive demand for new approaches to plant breeding. It started as an experimental station in 1908 and is now one of more than 1,700 such deposits worldwide.

The purpose of gene banks is to archive crop biodiversity. Most of the time, this is done by dehydrating and freezing the seeds. The UNThe Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that during the 20th century the diversity of crops planted declined by 75% as commercial farmers concentrated their efforts on a few reliable varieties. But varieties dropped as a result may still conceal valuable properties, and modern genetic techniques, such as genome-wide association studies (which look for synergies between different parts of a genome), may be able to to discover and use them.

“It’s life insurance to be able to plant in the future,” says Lise Lykke Steffensen, director of the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, which runs one of the largest and best-known seed banks, Svalbard Global Seed. Vault, in the eponymous Norwegian Archipelago. Besides the obvious risks of higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, climate change can also favor the emergence of new pests and diseases. To prepare for such events, breeders will need a formidable genetic arsenal to choose from.

Although the Kharkiv vault remains intact, the attack has raised concerns. Even with Russian troops now pushed back, the 150,000 specimens of 1,802 species representing 544 crop types it houses are still in danger as the war rages on. The same goes for collections of crops such as strawberries and grapes which are propagated by cuttings rather than seeds and are kept by the bank in the open field.

Moreover, Kharkiv is not the only facility affected by the war. In March, for example, Ukraine lost access to a plant irrigation institute in Kherson when that city fell to Russian forces. And, as Olga Trofimtseva, an agriculture expert at the Foreign Ministry, observes, many agricultural researchers have joined the army, while others have left the country.

A need for diversity

Such problems are not without precedent. In 2002, the Afghan national seed bank in Kabul was destroyed in battle and looted. A year later, the same thing happened at the Iraqi seed bank in Abu Ghraib. And a dryland seed collection based in Aleppo, Syria, closed in 2012 at the start of the civil war, and had to be re-established in Lebanon and Morocco.

It has therefore become good practice in all countries to safeguard seed collections abroad. The Svalbard Vault, for example, contains around 1.1 million samples, many on behalf of other institutions. Even so, many genebanks, including that of Ukraine, lack the resources to produce the additional seeds needed to fully safeguard their collections. As a result, only 2,800 of the 150,000 Ukrainian samples have duplicates in Svalbard permafrost.

The country stores a few duplicates elsewhere, but unfortunately “elsewhere” includes the Vavilov seed bank in St. Petersburg, now enemy territory. Ms Trofimtseva hopes that once the war is over, Ukraine’s agricultural research institutions, hitherto hardwired into networks developed during Imperial Russian and Soviet times, will diversify their connections by also connecting to other agricultural institutions in the whole world.

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Lana T. Arthur