Danielle Haddad, Crop Wild Relatives Communications Assistant at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, reports on the Malaysian training workshop which brought CWR partners across Asia together to learn about collecting, handling and banking the seeds of their crop wild relatives.

Global Food Security and Climate Change

The world we live in is ever changing, growing and facing new challenges on a daily basis, including threats to the plants that sustain our existence. 20% of all plant species are threatened with extinction, including many wild plants that are closely related to our crops and hold the potential to adapt agriculture to unprecedented changes. Today, a staggering 80% of global plant-based food intake comes from just 12 domesticated plant species. In fact, 50% of all this food energy comes from three species: wheat, rice and maize. That’s a very limited and narrow diet, considering the vast numbers of plant species that are available to provide food to people or diversity to crop breeding programs.

To address the challenges of global food security and climate change, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Millennium Seed Bank of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew have joined forces in a project to collect, conserve and make available for use the diversity within the wild species related to major food crops. This 10 year project, “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives” (CWR Project) funded by the government of Norway supports national institutes around the world in collecting and safeguarding priority crop wild relatives.

Training in Malaysia

The training course is the third one delivered by the CWR project, and follows on from two successful courses in Vietnam and Uganda. Experts Alicky Davey (CWR Country Programme Officer), Beverly Maynard (Seed Processing Manager at the MSB) and Roberta Hope (Science Administrator) of Kew’s Seed Conservation and Collection Departments at the Millennium Seed Bank headed off to the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) deliver the course that brought 21 participants together from Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan and Nepal from the 22nd – 26th February 2016.

The course brought together plant conservation practitioners and botanists to the MARDI Headquarters in Malaysia to participate in an international workshop on collecting, handling and long-term conservation of seeds of crop wild relatives. Combining participant’s knowledge of their native floras with the seed conservation skills gained over 40 years by RBG Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP), was the essence of the training.

The main aspects of seed banking as a conservation tool with a focus on the Seed Conservation Standards agreed by the MSBP were covered throughout the week. A combination of theory sessions with practical field and laboratory sessions of collecting, handling and storing high quality ex-situ collections of wild plant seeds ensured diversity within the course material.

Challenges for Seed Collectors

On Day 2 participants and Kew staff travelled to a field site to gain knowledge and practical skills in seed collecting. During the day they encountered 40 degree heat and 60% humidity, both challenges to making high quality seed collections.

The morning session was based around population assessment of Musa violascens Ridl, and determining whether a collection of 10,000 seeds can be made from more than 50 individuals, whilst only taking 20% of the available seeds. Participants demonstrated the 20% sampling technique which and the need to sample more than 50 individuals to increase the likelihood of adequately capturing the genetic diversity of the population.

In the afternoon collection techniques, including shaking, pole cutting, and hand picking, were practised on a variety of species. This element also included preparing herbarium specimens, data and seeds, together these three elements constitute a complete collection.

Establishing fruiting time and when seeds are mature or will be mature was practiced through the use of cut tests. This simple exercise involves cutting the seed in half and are carried out in order to establish maturity levels and levels of infestation. In Musa violascens Ridl, mature seeds will have a hard black seed coat and a white powdery endosperm, and a creamy mushroom shaped embryo at the base of the seed.

The seed collecting guides produced by RBG Kew were popular and a huge feature of the course, with various discussions on how they were made from the gap analysis, how they can be used and the variety of problems they can help with. Recently, collecting guides have been sent to both Nepal and Pakistan.

A variety of different cleaning techniques and methods to remove the fleshy/pulpy surrounding of some of the fruits was taught by Beverley. The participants also discussed theoretical elements of seed quality, seed moisture status, post-harvest handling, and much more. Beverley was incredibly inspired and encouraged seeing the concentration during the theory lectures. The obvious enthusiasm from all the participants on the course throughout the practical sessions seemed to bring them all together and encouraged communication for mutual benefit between institutes.

Outcomes and Project milestones

As a result of the course, participants were able to understand and carry out the different components and relationships of seed science including moisture status, relative humidity and collecting techniques and strategies including planning a collecting expedition and sampling strategies.

Overall, throughout the week all 21 participants practised making field collections of seeds, herbarium specimens, and associated data. Chose appropriate sampling strategies and seed extraction for particular species and post-harvest handling methods. Assessed the quality of collections using cut tests, as well as set up and evaluated seed germination tests.

The partners are now putting their new skills into practice. 20 countries are signed up and collecting their CWR within the CWR Project. This material will be duplicated at the MSB, feeding into the 25% target and shared with pre-breeders to identify the potentially useful traits they contain.

 Here’s what the participants thought.

  • “It was a well prepared and well managed training course. Alicky, Bobbi and Bev delivered the course very well and we learnt a lot! Thank you to Kew and MARDI.”
  • “The course was very useful for my work in the genebank – the continuous improvement of the course in the coming days is very important. Thanks for providing this wonderful opportunity.”
  • “Thank you Kew for your guidance during the workshop, all the information was very valuable.”
  • “The course has helped me to improve my skill and knowledge about seeds.”

Further information and images