A living genebank in Tajikistan

March 23, 2012

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway recently received 25,000 seed samples from all over the world. Speaking to NPR radio, Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which runs the Svalbard vault, highlighted the importance not only of storing new and current varieties, but also the old varieties that farmers do not use anymore. In doing so the genepool can be preserved and we can safeguard for future eventualities such as climate change or the emergence of new diseases, he said.

Among the batch of seeds was the vault’s first delivery from Tajikistan. CIMMYT wheat breeder Alexey Morgounov also featured in the NPR weekend segment, which typically has a listenership of over one million. Originally from Russia but now based in Turkey, Morgounov spoke about the unusual nature of wheat farming in Tajikistan. Unlike most other wheat-growing countries, farmers in Tajikistan are still planting the same ancient varieties that have been cultivated on the land for thousands of years. “They don’t want to give up growing them,” says Morgounov, “because those varieties have the taste and texture that they want.”

Instead it is the attitude of breeders that is changing. Morgounov says that before, he would have tried to persuade farmers to replace their old varieties with new, more productive kinds of wheat. Now however, he works with the farmers to improve the ancient wheat lines through traditional methods, whilst retaining the qualities that Tajikistanis desire in their flatbreads. In a country where homemade bread is “the centrepiece of life,” according to Morgounov, and where the people get half their calories from such bread, this is a very important mission indeed, and means that these ancient varieties can be preserved not only in genebanks such as the Svalbard vault and CIMMYT’s own genebank, but in the field as well.

You can listen to the NPR segment here.