The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) maize germplasm bank serves as a backup for farmers and researchers in times of catastrophic seed loss by safeguarding maize genetic diversity, a crucial building block in global food security. CIMMYT also trains local and national seed bank staff in best practices to preserve maize genetic diversity.
Natural disasters can have a dramatic impact on crop genetic diversity, threatening local and global food security. When Hurricane Stan swept through Guatemala in 2005, leading to 1,500 deaths, many farmers lost entire crops. Some indigenous communities were unable to harvest seed from their traditional maize varieties, known as landraces.
Generations of selection by farmers under local conditions had endowed these varieties with resistance to drought, heat, local pests and diseases.
As the country struggled to rebuild and replant, it was found that the entire maize seed collection at Guatemala’s national seed bank had been damaged by humidity that made the seeds vulnerable to insects and fungus and could not be replanted.
In 2016, drawing upon the back-up seed stores in its maize germplasm bank in Mexico, CIMMYT sent Guatemalan collaborators seed of more than 700 native Guatemalan maize varieties, including some of the varieties that had been lost.
Guatemalan scientists are now planting seed from the historic CIMMYT samples to ensure the varieties will grow well under local conditions. The best materials will be returned to local and national seedbanks in Guatemala, where they will be available for farmers and researchers to grow, study and use in breeding programs.
The effective conservation of seeds in the genebank outside their natural habitat is complex and costly, according to Denise Costich, head of the maize germplasm bank at CIMMYT.
“Seeds must be stored at constant low temperatures and humidity,” Costich said. “Seed bank curators must also regularly monitor the seed’s ability to germinate and, when a sample’s capacity falls too low, grow out the healthy seed in controlled plantings at a location similar to the environment of origin of the collection.”
Given the challenges and resource constraints faced by many countries with important native maize collections, international seed banks play a vital role as “safe deposit boxes for the world,” she said.