“Raising awareness to preserve germplasm is crucial to combat climate challenge, malnutrition, and food insecurity”

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Every year, the world records around USD 220 billion worth of annual global economic losses due to damages to plants and crops from invasive pest species. The International Day of Plant Health under the theme “Plant health, safe trade and digital technology” advocates taking clear action to keep plants healthy, and ensure food safety and safe trade for sustainable economies and livelihoods.

“Raising awareness at a global level to preserve germplasm and promote exchanges for current and future use is crucial to combat climate challenge, malnutrition, and food insecurity”, says Dr. Safaa Kumari, Plant Virologist and Head of ICARDA’s Seed Health Laboratory.

Dr. Kumari is one of the authors of a new research paper highlighting how ICARDA is striving to safeguard plant health in line with international regulations to prevent the spread of pests and pathogens and enhance crop improvement efforts.

Providing Pest-Free Seeds
Collecting and storing germplasm comes with a risk of garnering and spreading pathogens. To help mitigate this risk, ICARDA, through its genebank system, is a key global leader in setting standards for the safe collection, conservation, regeneration and distribution of elite breeders seed to partners. Working alongside global networks to collect, conserve, duplicate, and develop vital genetic resources to protect agrobiodiversity in dry regions, the ICARDA genebank contains around 143,000 samples of major winter cereals, food legumes, forage, and rangeland species.

Through its International Nursery (IN) platform and Seed Health Laboratory (SHL) with facilities in Lebanon and Morocco, ICARDA works with partner countries to ensure that only seed samples that satisfy international phytosanitary (measures to ensure plant health and cleanliness) pass entry requirements for ICARDA’s research, as well as national and international collaborators. Upholding such strict regulations is vital in developing new, healthy, and diverse crop varieties that can mitigate the impacts of accelerating climate change.

The main objective of ICARDA’s Seed Health Laboratory (SHL), is to maintain the phytosanitary clean health status of germplasm – seeds, plants, or plant parts useful in crop breeding, research, and conservation efforts – during regeneration (duplication of seeds for safety and research purposes), conservation and distribution. It helps guarantee that all seeds and breeding material are tested for, and cleaned from, storage pests, fungi, bacteria, viruses, nematodes, and parasitic weed seeds. ICARDA’s SHL also inspects the isolation areas or post-entry quarantine isolation areas to ensure no parasites are lurking in the shadows. In addition, any outgoing seed is inspected in the field at different crop growth stages by well-trained and qualified personnel. A comprehensive review of seed health is then conducted before a phytosanitary certificate is issued. Furthermore, SHL arranges for the proper documentation, packaging, and shipping of germplasm. Overall, these methods and procedures make certain that ICARDA’s incoming or outgoing germplasm is free of quarantine pests to safeguard partners, and its own research facilities, from the introduction of pests.

The same procedures are used by ICARDA’s SHL to duplicate our accessions (plant generic material) across partner genebanks, including the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, to safeguard germplasm, for research purposes, and to replenish lost accessions. Duplication is also important to replace plant losses due to unexpected shocks in countries, such as conflicts or natural disasters, and this ensures continuity across collaborating crop improvement programs.

In total, ICARDA’s SHL tests annually around 50,000 seed samples, providing clearance and documentation for safe germplasm movement. Over 70 countries receive ICARDA’s germplasm annually through its international nursery platform and Genebank system, while in parallel, ICARDA receives seeds of cultivated and wild relatives of crops from research institutions in more than 50 different countries.

To support national and international institutions, as well as research organizations and farmers to access seeds among the 7.5 million varieties conserved in over 1700 global genebanks, ICARDA helped launch the Activated Genebank Network (AGENT) project in 2020. Initially forming a consortium of 15 genebanks and four genebank genomic centers from Europe and the Middle East, the objective is to transform genebanks from storage facilities into advanced bioinformatics resource centers. Through harmonization of standards, accession categorization, and technical terms, AGENT’s goal is to establish a world-leading digital platform that facilitates standardized information exchanges for the management of plant genetic resources.

Over Half a Million Samples Tested
Between 2018 and 2022, ICARDA’s SHL tested 506,669 samples. Only 0.4% of the 278,217 genebank samples were removed after being tested, and less than 0.8% of the 228,452 breeding samples for import and export were found to be contaminated with pests.

Yet, in an effort to constantly improve accuracy and the speed of detection of existing and newly diagnosed pests and pathogens, ICARDA’s SHL is currently developing new nucleic acids-based detection protocols for identifying several pathogens that are difficult to detect through conventional tests. Moreover, seven standard operating procedures have been developed, unified, and harmonized in Lebanon and Morocco to facilitate collaborations with the national plant protection organizations and the International Plant Protection Convention. Finally, to ease the traceability of materials’ processing and real-time data collection and analyses, ICARDA’s SHL is adopting a new online system to automate seed health services.

As stated in the theme for Plant Health Day this year, Plants Are Life. It is up to research organizations like ICARDA and other CGIAR centers, as well as global agri-science institutions, to make sure that the plants we use in research, and release are clean and free from pests that can cause mass destruction of crops and economies. ICARDA’s SHL’s efforts are stepping up to that task.

Source: icarda.org

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