Food Security

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 9–25 | Cite as

Access to genes: linkages between genebanks and farmers’ seed systems

  • Ola Tveitereid WestengenEmail author
  • Kristine Skarbø
  • Teshome Hunduma Mulesa
  • Trygve Berg
Original Paper


Genebanks conserve key resources for handling current and future challenges to food production and security. The role of genebanks has evolved from primarily serving plant breeders to include long-term biodiversity conservation and distribution to a wider user community. International policy frameworks stress the complementarity of ex situ and in situ conservation and management, but a dichotomy prevails in the public and scholarly agricultural development discourse. Here, we present a study of existing linkages between the two conservation and management approaches, their challenges and future options. First, we show that farmers, farmer organizations, and NGOs now comprise a considerable user group of genebank material, receiving at least 8% of the seed samples distributed from international genebanks in 2015, on par with the proportion distributed to the commercial seed sector. Second, we map and categorize approaches to introduce genebank material into farmers’ seed systems. Based on a survey, interviews and a literature review we categorize direct genebank-farmer linkages into six categories: (1) Reintroduction, (2) Emergency Seed Interventions, (3) Community Seed Banks, (4) Participatory Plant Breeding, (5) Variety Introduction, and (6) Integrative Seed System Approaches. We investigate the merits of these approaches as alternative and complementary pathways for enhancing farmers’ access to crop diversity. Finally, we discuss challenges related to scale, sustainability and legal frame conditions and point out opportunities to realize synergies to achieve the ultimate goal of the ex situ conservation agenda and the farmers’ rights agenda, namely to strengthen farmers’ access to suitable seeds.


Plant Genetic Resources Ex situ conservation In situ conservation Seed System Development 



This article is based on a report written on a grant from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad). We thank all survey respondents and experts interviewed for taking the time to participate. We thank the Global Crop Diversity Trust for providing the distribution data from the CGIAR genebanks and for their support in setting up the electronic survey used in this study.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declared that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature and International Society for Plant Pathology 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ola Tveitereid Westengen
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kristine Skarbø
    • 1
  • Teshome Hunduma Mulesa
    • 1
  • Trygve Berg
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of International Environment and Development StudiesNoragric Norwegian University of Life SciencesÅsNorway

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