Seed and gene banks play a critical role in conserving and sharing indigenous crop seeds

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On a trip to Harare for partnership exploration meetings, the African Centre for Biodiversity visited the Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Institute of Zimbabwe. Gene banks such as these are primarily established to conserve the genetic resources that form the basis for all food production.

Seed collections start at the level of community seed banks and are then archived at national and then regional level. So in Zimbabwe, seed from community banks will also be registered and stored at the Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Institute (formerly the National Gene Bank of Zimbabwe), as well as at the regional Southern African Development Community Plant Genetic Resource Centre, located in Zambia. Finally, seed is sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago between Norway and the North Pole, which opened in 2008.

The establishment of community seed banks in selected districts in Zimbabwe was necessitated by the realisation that farmers have been slowly losing their invaluable indigenous crop seeds. This is due to the vigorous promotion and growth of a small number of hybrid crop varieties, designed for intensive farming.

The seed and gene banks store a rare collection of seed varieties that include indigenous pearl millet, finger millet, sorghum, indigenous rice, okra, pumpkins, maize, groundnuts, beans, Bambara groundnut, cowpeas and a wide range of indigenous vegetables. The seed is primarily stored for the purpose of sharing, through seed swaps and other events. Farmers often donate seed to the community bank after a good harvest and when they don't have enough seed for planting, they borrow from the seed bank.

Beyond this core conservation function, community seed banks have a broad range of additional purposes and vary significantly in scope; size; infrastructure and technical aspects.

In this video, Seka Davidzo, a research technician at the gene bank, explains the process of collecting and storing the seed.