Unique plant genetic resources have been transported over a thousand kilometers from Kharkiv to the west of Ukraine.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with support from the European Union (EU), moved a collection of unique plant genetic samples from Kharkiv in the east of Ukraine to a safe location in the west of the country. The volume and diversity of the plant genetic material contained in the seed collection, some of which is not available at any other seed bank, makes it unique and essential to Ukrainian agriculture and to global food security.
As of 2021, Ukraine estimated that it held more than 150,000 plant genetic materials belonging to 544 crops varietals and 1802 species of plants. The collection contains 39,000 unique genetic samples originating from Ukraine. Crop scientists consider preserving Ukraine’s collections of wheat, triticale, barley, pea, chickpea, temperate forages, and sunflower is of critical importance for global crops.
The Kharkiv National Gene Bank was in imminent danger of loss when shelling in May 2022 damaged infrastructure, agricultural machinery, and some of the working seed collections at field research stations.
The collection contains 39,000 unique genetic samples originating from Ukraine
“As the conflict intensified, scientists from around the world contacted the Secretariat of the International Plant Treaty to sound the alarm on Ukraine’s main national seed collection held in Kharkiv,” said Kent Nnadozie, Secretary of FAO’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
“This unique collection is of global value for the future of food security and sustainable agriculture, and if lost then it is lost forever.”
To conserve Ukraine’s agricultural heritage, FAO and the EU joined efforts to move the collection to a secure location in the west of Ukraine, over 1000 km away. In a complex operation several national authorities including Ukraine’s Academy of Agrarian Sciences, the International Plant Treaty and the Global Crop Diversity Trust (Crop Trust) partnered to catalogue the seeds and complete the logistics for transportation.
“This activity aims to secure and safeguard the Ukrainian Plant Genetic Resources System and rehabilitate it in a rational and efficient manner,” said Christian Ben Hell, the Sector Manager for Agriculture at the EU Delegation to Ukraine. “While the collection is now in a safe location, further work is needed to ensure a sustainable solution in the long-term. It also involves improving the information system of plant genetic resources with modern IT support.”
It is an international good practice to ensure that such collections are duplicated and safeguarded in at least two locations, one of which should be the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in case of damage to national collections. Ukraine previously deposited around 2700 cereal and legume accessions in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, but the majority of its collection has not yet been backed-up.
With the funds from the EU, FAO, the International Plant Treaty and Crop Trust are supporting the Ukrainian National Academy of Agricultural Science to develop and operationalize a plan for the long-term preservation and safe replication of genetic resources, including a future deposit in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. In parallel, the construction of an additional depository in the west of Ukraine has also commenced.
“FAO has a unique role to play in supporting the reconstruction of Ukraine’s agrifood systems, given the Organization’s substantial expertise and experience in both humanitarian and development contexts,” said Pierre Vauthier, head of FAO’s Ukraine country office. “This initiative makes an important contribution to safeguarding future food production and resilient livelihoods in Ukraine, and supports the critical role it plays in global food security.”
Other partners, including the Nordic Council and the European Cooperative Programme for Plant Genetic Resources, provided early emergency support to the Ukraine’s national genebank. A wide range of partners are now joining efforts with FAO, the International Plant Treaty and the Crop Trust to ensure coordinated action to safeguard Ukraine’s agricultural heritage.
Every seed sample conserved in a genebank represents a unique additional option available to breeders, researchers and farmers in the fight against climate change and food insecurity. At a time when the world is facing an unprecedented loss of agricultural biodiversity in farmers’ fields, it is more important than ever to ensure that crop diversity is safeguarded, including the diversity that is held in genebanks.