Role of germplasm health units in ensuring food security highlighted

23 October 2017

The Genebank Platform, a partnership of the 11 CGIAR genebanks and the Crop Trust, and 11 CGIAR Germplasm Health Units (GHUs) joined hands to raise awareness about germplasm health work across the CGIAR system and national and international partners during a Phytosanitary awareness campaign.

Phytosanitary Awareness Week poster
Phytosanitary Awareness Week poster

The campaign aims to inform, update, inspire, and engage diverse stakeholders to raise awareness of the critical role that germplasm health units play in ensuring safe exchange of germplasm free of pests and diseases. CGIAR Genebanks located in centers of crop diversity, host more than 750,000 accessions of vital food, forage, and tree crop germplasm, including cassava, maize, rice, potato, sweetpotato, groundnut, sorghum, chickpea, and banana, besides thousands of improved varieties bred for resistance to pests and diseases, resilience to climate change, and richness in micronutrients such as pro-vitamin A.

The Genebank of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria represents the single largest collection of invaluable genetic resources of major food staples such as cassava, maize, yam, plantain, cowpea, and other legumes in sub-Saharan Africa.

Crop germplasm is a high value commodity. “Germplasm conserved in the CGIAR genebanks and the improved varieties developed by the breeding programs are regularly exchanged at a high frequency with national and international programs for crop improvement, diversification, food production, commerce and agricultural development,” said Lava Kumar, Head of the Germplasm Health Unit/Virology at the IITA, and the coordinates GHU Component of the Genebank Platform. “Germplasm exchange, however, has inherent risks of introducing exotic pathogens that include viruses, fungi, bacteria, phytoplasma, weeds, insects, and nematodes.”

GHUs have been established in each CGIAR center involved in crop improvement research and include Africa Rice, Bioversity, CIAT, CIP, CIMMYT, ICARDA, ICRAF, ICRISAT, IITA, ILRI, and IRRI.

The GHUs enable the exchange of healthy and pest- and disease-free germplasm between centers and partners in various countries in accordance with the requirements of the national plant protection organizations (NPPO) regulations and the FAO International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC).

“GHUs provide vital support to genebanks and breeding programs in production and maintenance of pest and pathogen-free germplasm for conservation and use,” Kumar said. “Collectively GHUs, genebanks, and crop improvement programs ensure germplasm distributed from the CGIAR centers are healthy and of high quality and meet the phytosanitary requirements of national and international legislation.”

GHUs develop phytosanitary procedures to eliminate pathogens from germplasm and create versatile diagnostics tools for health indexing tests for screening invasive, exotic, and endemic pathogens. The units track changes in global pest and pathogen profiles and develop appropriate controls to tackle new challenges. They work proactively to transfer knowledge and technologies to build phytosanitary capacity among partners programs.

“Germplasm health is one of CGIAR’s unknown success stories,” Kumar said. “CGIAR has the highest level of international germplasm distribution worldwide. Every year CGIAR centers attend to about 2,000 requests for seed, clonal, and tree germplasm from more than 100 countries. The majority of these requests are from developing countries. Annual international exports from IITA-Ibadan station range between 100 to 150 events, covering about 40 to 50 countries, most of them in SSA”.

GHUs under the aegis of national quarantine organizations are responsible for implementing phytosanitary controls to prevent the risk of alien pathogen spread during seed exports and imports. This complicated and expensive task is made easier due to CGIAR’s absolute commitment to adhere to high phytosanitary standards. CGIAR’s cooperation with national quarantine agencies of the host countries, who understand the CGIAR’s role in disseminating valuable crop diversity across the countries and continents, is essential.

During the Awareness campaign, the CGIAR centers will showcase tools and technologies for germplasm health testing and phytosanitary controls. They will conduct joint activities with national quarantine authorities to increase knowledge on established and emerging threats to global agriculture and prevention methods.

“We hope to convey the key message that GHUs ensure phytosanitary compliance and safeguard the path to food security,” Kumar said.

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Contact: Lava Kumar,

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