Seed World

First Svalbard Seed Deposit Crowns Serbia’s Efforts to Develop a Dynamic Conservation System for Local Cereal Varieties

Photo Credit: Svalbard Global Seed Vault/Riccardo Gangale.

The Benefit-sharing Fund project, GRAINEFIT, celebrated a unique milestone, with the first-ever deposit of Serbian crop varieties into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The 96 accessions, including varieties of wheat, rye, barley and oats, were gathered in collection missions and retrieved from genebanks. “Extreme weather events during regeneration seasons threaten our varieties,” said Project coordinator Sanja Mikic from the Institute of Field and Vegetable Crops (IFVCNS), “and with limited technical staff for maintenance at our national genebank, this safety back-up in Svalbard reduces the risk of losing our valuable national collection.”

Serbia has a rich diversity of wheat varieties, which play an important role in-country and form valuable resources for other countries. “Wheat bread is an indispensable part of everyday meals and has spiritual, cultural, traditional and nutritional significance,” explained Ana Marjanović Jeromela, Science Director at IFVCNS. “We are very proud to contribute to this global initiative and thankful to the Benefit-sharing Fund for its technical and financial support. It is our duty to save all valuable plant genetic resources from Serbia to the benefit of farmers everywhere.”

“Cereals are part of peoples’ diets all over the world and essential for food and nutrition security. It is vital that we conserve the genetic diversity that is still present in farmers’ fields and in the wild,” said Kent Nnadozie, Secretary of the International Treaty that provides the legal framework that gave the impetus to the establishment of the Global Seed Vault. “The backing up of Serbia’s collection in Svalbard provides an extra layer of safety under the most secure storage conditions.”

Sourcing the seeds

About half of the varieties were sourced through collection missions in remote agricultural areas. National extension services assisted the project team in reaching out to farmers that still cultivate old varieties and local landraces of major cereals. The team also documented knowledge on local practices of cultivation and usage of the crops, such as traditional methods of preparing them into food.

Besides collection missions, the project retrieved varieties from the National Small Grains Collection maintained by the United States Department of Agriculture. These varieties were originally collected from Serbia but were no longer available in farmers’ fields. The identification and selection of the retrieved varieties was partly based on farmers’ recollections of what they or their families used to grow in the past.

Ms. Dragica Đorđević, a farmer from Simićevo, told the team about her personal connection to the variety that she cultivates: “One of my earliest childhood memories is the delicious smell of the bread that my grandmother made from a red wheat landrace called Crvenka. When I grew older, the seeds were not sowed every year and were eventually lost in my family. Today, I have retrieved the seeds and I can make bread from the same landrace for my own grandchildren.”

The Benefit-sharing Fund project in Serbia and Bulgaria works with small-scale farmers, farmers’ associations, civil society organizations, small-scale entrepreneurs, extension services, scientists and genebanks. The project contributes to an increased diversity in planting materials for farmers and technical support for rural families throughout the season. Participating farmer Olga Bjelobrk from Ranovac explained that “access to plant genetic resources with good quality and high nutritional value is essential for the sustainability and self-sufficiency of our local community. Our high-quality products made from the old traditional varieties are becoming increasingly popular, providing us with an additional income that is important for securing our livelihoods.”

Local to global conservation efforts

“The International Treaty works to connect community level conservation activities to national, international and even global initiatives, as evidenced by the wheat varieties in the fields of Serbia that have now been deposited in the Global Seed Vault,” said Secretary Nnadozie. “In these efforts, we recognize that regenerating and multiplying seeds is expensive, time consuming and delicate.”

 To address challenges similar to those experienced by the Serbian institutes, the Global Crop Diversity Trust in partnership with the International Treaty Secretariat, NordGen and the Norwegian Ministry of Food and Agriculture are launching a grant to support regeneration and safety duplication at the Svalbard global seed vault.

About the Benefit-sharing Fund

The project in Serbia is one of 20 ongoing projects supported by the Fourth Cycle of the Benefit-sharing Fund. The Fund supports farmers and indigenous communities in developing countries to meet challenges of biodiversity loss, climate change and food insecurity, through the sustainable management and conservation of plant genetic resources. It has benefitted over 1 million people in over 60 developing countries since its inception 10 years ago.