Costa Rica Keeps a Treasury of Seeds, in the Face of Climate or Food Crises, in Turrialba

    These seeds, which can be stored at low temperatures for up to 40 years without being damaged, can be used in research, genetic improvement or supply

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    Did you know that, in the heart of the jungle mountains of central Costa Rica, there is a treasure trove of seeds collected and stored for decades in case they are needed to face food crises or the threat of climate change?

    Since 1976, the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (Catie) near the town of Turrialba, about 60 km east of San José, has accumulated 6,201 samples of 14 botanical families, 61 genera and 125 species, the second collection being largest in the world in terms of the genus cucurbita (pumpkin). “A genebank is a resource for current and future use. It is mainly made up, in the case of orthodox seeds, of material that will be stored cold, and in the case of other crops, such as fruit trees, with live plants in the field”, explains the Catie plant genetic resources researcher to AFP, William Solano.

    These seeds, which can be stored at low temperatures for up to 40 years without being damaged, can be used in research, genetic improvement or supply, says Solano at the doors of the refrigerator, at about -20ºC, where he keeps the collection. Inside, hundreds of silver envelopes are stacked on shelves with seeds of different types of corn, beans, chilies or tomatoes. A food reserve whose samples can be requested by anyone to make use of them in case of need or study. There are seeds from 57 countries, collected in markets, roads or production farms (around 90% of them are from Central America).

    Strengthening food security

    Solano, 51 years old, explains that they store varieties “that have adapted very well to humid areas, others that are tolerating drought. So, in response to climate change, here are materials of importance for food security”. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 9.2% of the world population suffered from hunger in 2022, some 735 million people, with increases in Africa, Western Asia and the Caribbean.

    Climate change increasingly affects crops, and this has an impact on food production, which is why traditional seeds are essential to “give sustainability to agri-food systems“, says Solano. “It is increasingly important in terms of climate change precisely because this variability that exists among native seeds gives them the ability to adapt to different conditions that may be prevailing at any given time”, seed expert Ester told AFP. Vargas, from the University of Costa Rica. The 36-year-old researcher sees seed banks as a guarantee of “availability” for future food crops of high nutritional value.

    Improved hybrid varieties

    In addition to the vital function of repopulating in the event of the disappearance of species, the Catie seed bank also functions as a genetic archive of species that, due to the introduction of modified seeds to increase crop productivity, have disappeared from farmland. crops, Catie agronomist Daniel Fernández told AFP. “They gather a great deal of genetic information that determines both the characteristics that we can observe, as well as different fruit colors, sizes, flavors, and other conditions”, says the 35-year-old engineer as he dehydrates chili pepper seeds before putting them in the refrigerator.

    With the advent of “hybrid, improved varieties” seeds, adds the expert, producers put traditional ones aside because modified ones “are a solution to the problem of low yield in production, they give resistance to pests and diseases”. For this reason, says the Catie engineer, it becomes more important to have seeds from different parts of the world in case it is necessary to “repatriate” them. “Much or a high percentage of conserved germplasm is no longer in the collection sites for the same reason that producers have been putting aside their local varieties and have replaced them with improved varieties”, he laments.

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