As an institution, IITA has made a long-term commitment to conserve Africa’s plant and animal genetic resources for future generations. At IITA we keep expansive collections of both crops and noncrops, in (in situ) or out (ex situ) of their natural environment.
The range of agrobiodiversity, the component of biodiversity that contributes to food and agriculture, enables IITA scientists to continue their research and farmers to keep producing food. This biodiversity must be maintained.
Our Genetic Resources Center, or Genebank, has thousands of crop varieties available for research and as disaster relief, and our insect collection contains some of Africa’s rarest insect species. All our efforts are focused on maintaining biodiversity in sub-Saharan Africa.
Today, the world is losing genetic resources at unprecedented rates. The biological basis for food security is fast disappearing. Agricultural sustainability therefore depends on a strong conservation component.
Plant and animal genetic resources are the foundation of sustainable agriculture and global food security. Genetic diversity enables plants to adapt to new pests and diseases as well as to climatic and environmental changes.
Preserving biodiversity outside of its natural environment is done in the Genebank. IITA’s Genebank holds over 28,000 accessions of plant material or germplasm, of major African food crops. This germplasm is held in trust on behalf of humanity under the sponsorship of the United Nations. It is distributed without restriction for use in research for food and agriculture.
Started in the mid-seventies the Genebank helps in crop improvement and also provides “seeds of hope” for people affected by flood, fire, wars, and other disasters.
Major crops in the IITA Genebank
The main crops stored in the Genebank are cowpea, cassava, plantain and banana, yam, soybean, bambara groundnut, and maize. In addition, substantial collections of wild cowpea relatives and miscellaneous legumes have been collated over the past 30 years. More recently a small collection of African yam bean, an underused legume, has been put together.
By far the most important crop in the Genebank is the cowpea. The IITA Genebank holds the world’s largest and most diverse collection of cowpeas with 15,122 unique samples from 88 countries, representing 70% of African cultivars and nearly half of the global diversity. This incredible collection makes IITA integral in the protection of the cowpea species.
The Genebank facilities
Depending on the species and its reproductive and dissemination biology, collections are either stored in the field, or in the seed or in-vitro genebanks.
All crops producing orthodox seeds are maintained at optimal water content in medium-term (5 ºC, 30–35% relative humidity) or long-term (-20 ºC, under vacuum) storage conditions.
Clonal crops, those that are propagated through cuttings, are either maintained in the field or the in-vitro genebank. Sometimes they are kept in both to maintain the collection.
IITA’s work with national and international partners on identification and observation of insect species is, therefore, important to control the spread of these invasive species.
In Africa where much of the planet’s insect biodiversity occurs, rapidly accelerating human activity has contributed to the introduction and spread of invasive pests.
Insects represent the majority of living organisms on Earth, accounting for about two-thirds of all creatures and filling many niches in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. They play an important regulatory role, but some can become notorious pests of agricultural, medical, and veterinary importance.