Category : Feature Stories
Published : May 21, 2019 - 1:13 PM
Highlights from The Six-month External Review on the CWR Project
Luis Salazar, Crop Trust
This year – 2019 – collecting activities of the Crop Wild Relatives (CWR) Project come to an end. In its seven-years run, this component will have supported 25 national partners in their efforts to collect, conserve and make available many of the wild cousins of 29 food crops that were missing from ex situ collections. Though some partners are still busy finalizing their collecting and processing activities, already there are “thousands of unique new accessions conserved and safely duplicated in national and international genebanks worldwide,” writes Walter S. de Boef, in the summary reports of the recently concluded external review of the CWR Project.
Walter has more than 30 years of experience in agricultural development with an emphasis on plant genetic resource management. Back in November 2018, he commenced a six-month independent assessment of the effectiveness, efficiency, impact, relevance and sustainability of project activities.
“External reviews like this one provide us with an independent appreciation of the work we do,” says Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust. “They also help us understand how others – including our many partners across the world – are perceiving us and our contribution to the international community that safeguards and uses crop diversity.”
Launched in 2011, the CWR Project – “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives” – was designed to identify, collect, conserve and use the wild cousins of some of our most important food crops. This ten-year, global initiative is managed by the Crop Trust in collaboration with the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) at Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. It is implemented in partnership with national and international genebanks and plant breeding programs around the world, and made possible thanks to a US$50 million grant provided by the Government of Norway.
“The CWR Project has no precedent. It is a long-term, forward-thinking initiative that supports the activities of hundreds of actors across the world in a comprehensive manner,” says Walter. “With different but related components, each with its own set of challenges, it is allowing the plant genetic resources scientists everywhere to harness the use of wild relatives in helping adapt our agriculture to climate change.”
Given the complexity and scope of the CWR Project, and by extension, the difficulties in carrying out a thorough CWR project review, two other plant genetic experts were brought into the fold: David E. Williams and Elcio Perpétuo Guimaraes. The former reviewed the collecting component of the project. The latter, the pre-breeding one. Together, they have more than 70 years of experience under their belts, working for renown institutions like FAO (The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations); IICA (the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture); Embrapa, Brazil’s national agricultural research corporation, and the CGIAR, among others. Additionally, Claire Kpaka, an International Development professional, was instrumental in the information and data analysis.
The review team reached out to CWR Project partners in more than 50 countries – through e-surveys, phone interviews and video conference conversations. They also visited partner organizations in 10 countries, including Chile, India, Kenya, and Morocco.
The final, 30-plus page review document provides a thorough analyses of the major components of the CWR Project. Below, a brief selection of assessments highlight some of the major achievements of the Project:
Collecting and Processing
The challenges in finding, collecting and conserving crop wild relatives were diverse and numerous – specially for teams with little or no previous experience. But the CWR Project partners rose to the challenge. Says David Williams: “The skills and experience acquired by the national partners through their implementation of this project has enhanced their technical and project management capacity and positions them as effective partners for participation in future international and global initiatives involving CWR collecting, processing and conservation.
As a result, these collaborators have expanded their national plant genetic resources collections and secured the long-term conservation, availability and use of these materials by sharing them with the global community.
PER THE REPORT: “…PERHAPS THE GREATEST – BUT LEAST RECOGNIZED – ACHIEVEMENT OF THE CWR PROJECT IS THE OPPORTUNITY IT PROVIDES FOR PARTNER COUNTRIES TO PARTICIPATE IN THE MLS [MULTILATERAL SYSTEM].”
The Pre-breeding Component
The pre-breeding component is presently supporting 97 partners in 48 countries. During the course of the project, partner institutions began exploring the wild relatives of 19 food crops, developing and evaluating pre-bred materials – part wild / part domesticated lines – that can potentially be game-changers in breeding programs. According to the review: “It is the first major investment supporting the use of CWR across multiple genepools to generate knowledge and materials contributing to adaptation to climate change… especially in developing material tolerant to abiotic stresses.”
Some of these efforts have already made advanced materials available to genebanks for maintenance and future use. For example: as part of the eggplant pre-breeding project, materials generated by the Universitat Politécnica de Valéncia, Spain, and its partners in Côte d’Ivoire and Sri Lanka, are now conserved in — and can be requested from – the World Vegetable Center’s genebank in Taiwan.
“The project is without a doubt a big step forward in terms of providing to the end users a wealth of interesting genetic materials,” says Elcio Guimaraes. “With pearl millet, for example, the team led by ICRISAT [The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics] already has developed crosses that are currently being evaluated by the private sector. That was a big surprise to me.”
Without the CWR Project’s support, active use of wild relatives in crop improvement efforts for several of these crops would be minimal. Case in point: durum wheat (or pasta wheat), which is the second most cultivated wheat species after common wheat (or bread wheat). Throughout the last decades, the development of new varieties had tempered off; breeders simply had no funding to continue their work. Today, thanks to the CWR Project’s pre-breeding work, new varieties that are more tolerant to drought and resistant to hessian fly are being evaluated. These will soon directly benefit the farmers that grow this crop. They will also, indirectly, benefit the end-consumers.
Information Management Component
The CWR Project assessed the data management capabilities of 32 national genebanks. Based on these assessments, 21 genebanks received targeted support to improve their information technologies.
Though, in the larger structure of the CWR Project, this Information Management Component was relatively small, the review team considered it “impactful and highly relevant, and recommend its continuation and embedding in future initiatives”
Capacity development is a cross-cutting activity that impacted all technical components of the CWR Project. For example, a total of 12 Postdocs and more than 50 post-graduate students carried out research that increased the efficiency of many pre-breeding projects. “This illustrates the project’s contribution to sustainability in terms of human resources for pre-breeding. We recommended to continue supporting and training post-graduate students as part of future pre-breeding activities,” states the report.
Beyond the particular findings that addressed the project’s component, the review team recognized the fact that the CWR Project has raised awareness among various audiences on the importance of crop wild relatives, enhancing the knowledge and understanding of these plants, their potential uses and the threats they face.
“By engaging partners in a pioneering effort to collect, conserve and use crop wild relatives, the CWR Project not only enhanced the countries’ technical and institutional capacity to study and conserve these unique genetic resources, but also to engage and inform their local partners, governments and the general public about their existence and importance,” writes Walter.
An interesting cross-cutting topic that was highlighted in the review was the fact that this project has brought together a diverse set of actors — national and international institutions from different corners of the world — that otherwise would not be working jointly. It also noted: “The CWR Project’s efficient leadership and collaboration at global and national levels has been crucial to the effective delivery of the partners’ agreed outputs.”
With the experience gained, the partnerships forged, and the outcomes thus far attained, the CWR Project has strengthened the capabilities of the Crop Trust, particularly in managing multi-actor efforts. Success breeds expectations, and the review team advises that the Crop Trust, “with its insights and intelligence, coupled with its admirable communication capabilities, should continue to play a constructive and supportive role in this space.”
The review team also puts forth a series of recommendations that can enhance future similar initiatives. Among these, they propose including “a specific capacity development strategy and component”, instead of embedding it in the global framework of the project. They also urge the project leaders to “promote peer-to-peer linkages, driven by partners demands and interests.”
Regarding future CWR collecting and conservation efforts, “budgetary restrictions at national genebanks, such as those we observed during our visits to the genebanks in six countries, do not permit CWR activities to continue unless external support is provided.” In other words, for lasting, long-term impact, international efforts such as the CWR Project need to continue.
Addressing the use of CWR, the review team concluded that “the CWR Project has developed an initial and firm basis in its contribution through pre-breeding, which requires continuation and further support to result in practical outcomes— seeds of adapted varieties including traits sourced from CWR — that will allow farmers to benefit from the globally available CWR. This will support farmers to counter the climate change challenges they are facing with newly adapted varieties.”
More directly, though, the conclusions and recommendations put forth by the review team “will directly impact the activities that the CWR Project will undertake in its remaining year-and-a-half,” says Hannes Dempewolf, Senior Scientist at the Crop Trust.
Lastly, this review will assist the Crop Trust in “better shaping future work in the field of plant genetic resources, crop wild relatives and climate change adaptation.”
— ENDS –
All plant genetic materials collected and developed, including accompanying data, under the Crop Wild Relatives Project is shared under the terms of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA) within the framework of the multi-lateral system of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.