Greek Gene Bank’s Struggle Indicative Of Changing Times

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Gene banks holding plant genetic material worldwide play a crucial role for future agricultural practices and research and development in the field, especially as people rediscover the importance of their dependence on the land due to the financial situation. The present financial crisis may generate opportunities and losses. This can be illustrated by the Gene Bank of Greece, an institution traditionally rich in genetic material and of global interest.

The Greek Gene Bank (“GGB”) was established in 1981 in Thessaloniki with the help of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It holds in its stewardship a tremendous amount of plant genetic resources in the form of seeds. Its purpose is two-fold. It conducts research for the improvement of existing plant varieties and the development of new, more resistant ones. It also is a conservation place for “landraces” (traditional plant varieties which have been selected and developed by farmers – and not by plant breeders or biotechnology companies – throughout the years and resulted in highly resistant autochthonous plants).

The total number of varieties preserved currently in the GGB amounts to 14,000 so-called “accessions” (samples of planting material stored in ex situ collections). Among others, it holds 3 per cent of the wild wheat genetic material conserved in gene banks worldwide, making it a place of special interest for researchers.

With the joint Ministerial Decree 188763/2011 (FEK B’ – 2284, available here in Greek) and taking into account the need to cut public spending as part of Greece’s obligations under the Financial Support Framework and its efforts of fiscal consolidation, the Ministers of Finance and Rural Development effectuated in October 2011 the merger of four state-owned agricultural institutes. These included: the National Institute of Agricultural Research, to which the GGB belonged; the Organisation of Training in Agricultural Vocation; the Certification and Supervision of Agricultural Products Agency; and the Organization of Milk and Meat.

The new institution was baptised “Greek Agricultural Organisation – Demetra” (alluding to the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility). The merger had as a result the discharge of personnel and the minimisation of the budgets of the institutes in question.

In December 2012, the Athens University of Economics and Business conducted and published a study on the GGB coordinated by Economic Theory and Politics Professor Anastasios Ksepapadeas (available here). In it, the research team undertook an analysis of the GGB function and role in the Greek economy and evaluated its benefits in terms of strengthening food security and enhancing agricultural productivity in uncertain future circumstances, such as climate change – to which the Mediterranean region is particularly vulnerable according to the study – or crop diseases.

The evaluation of the GGB was undertaken in both economic and non-economic terms (or, as the study terms them, “use and non-use values”). For the former, the study ascribed market data to the insurance and productivity values of the GGB. The insurance value of a gene bank consists of ensuring food security and limiting the negative effects of a plant disease outbreak by maintaining plant diversity.

A gene bank also has productivity value, according to the study, in that its crop diversity enables plant breeders to create improved varieties which yield greater food production in tune with growing global needs, and which are more resistant in drought and lack of nutritious soil – so as to “decrease pressure on the environment,” according to the study.

The non-economic value of a gene bank, i.e., the conservation of genetic material for the future, is approximated in that it enhances international research efforts on the development of world agriculture and retains the information of the biodiversity patrimony for the future. As stated in a study [pdf] by Smale and Hanson conducted in 2010 for the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research: “The information value relating to the collection of genetic resources of a gene bank has public good characteristics.”

The Economic University of Athens study concluded that a cost-benefit comparison based on the study results: “confirms that the benefits of the GGB, even with the conservative estimation adopted within the current framework, significantly exceeds the costs of its operation. Thus in terms of insurance values generated by the GGB, the flow of annual equivalent values were estimated to represent a minimum of 2.95 million euros whereas operating costs of the GGB currently correspond to less than 3 per cent of this amount on an annual basis. Hence, the present study suggests that maintaining and further developing the GGB is an economically justified strategy.”

Challenges for Greek Gene Bank

Greek news sites reported on the results of the GGB’s loss of administrative independence and the budgetary cuts: it is severely understaffed (there is now only one person effectively managing it), the sustainability of the seeds is threatened by the lack of appropriate housing, and overall, the highly specific conditions under which the genetic material is to be stored are no longer fulfilled. See article here.

Seed conservation does not consist of merely storing the seeds and keeping them under appropriate conditions: seeds need to be actively preserved, i.e., sowed and reaped at least every 20 years in order to maintain their genetic material alive. The study concluded that there is no long-term plan for the sustainable existence of the GGB.

On the other hand, seed exchange networks organised by citizens have sprung up literally in every corner of Greece, assuming an active role in the preservation and enjoyment of traditional seeds. They meet regularly and exchange seeds, information and cultivation practices. They maintain that conservation and proliferation of traditional Greek agricultural products is up to everyone and through their action they raise awareness on the intellectual property protection of seeds and plant genetic resources. Seed networks can be found in websites (in Greek) here, here, here and here.

This is consistent with the recent trend of rural exodus of Greek people towards the countryside as a consequence of the financial situation and a corresponding renewed interest in agricultural practices. There has been no official study or statistics on this phenomenon, but it has been well reported, see “Journey across crisis-hit Greece,” For Greeks, crisis reverses a generation of progress,”When economies fail: Inside Greece’s Great Urban Exodus,” and Greek crisis forces thousands of Athenians into rural migration.”

 
Ms. Paraskevi Kollia (Greece), is attending the LL.M. in Intellectual Property and Competition Law at the Munich Intellectual Property Law Center. She is mainly interested in patents, farmers’ rights, biotechnology, as well as traditional and modern biopiracy issues.

Paraskevi Kollia may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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