Bellagio Meeting - Plant Genetics Resources and the SDGs

From the 28th of November through the 1st of December 2016, 18 experts from a range of disciplines were hosted by The Rockefeller Foundation at its Bellagio Center in Italy to discuss how plant genetic resources relate to and can be instrumental in meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Generous support for this meeting was provided by The Rockefeller Foundation, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and the New Phytologist Trust.

Participants agreed to maintain confidentiality with regard to individual comments and presentation materials shared in the meeting. They also agreed that the agenda, participant list, and a meeting report would be made public. At the end of the meeting, participants reported that they had found the atmosphere to be respectful and productive and that they felt encouraged by the progress they had made.

The group had three objectives, which were to:

·      Advance the ongoing global dialogue about how science, technology, data, and digital information about plant genetic resources (PGR) may impact and potentially help agriculture adapt to the changing climate and augment food and nutritional security, particularly in the developing world

·     In the context of the SDGs, explore the interaction between emerging R&D opportunities (emanating from scientific and technological advances and increased data sharing capability) and the current policy framework related to access, use, and benefit-sharing of PGR and related information.

·      Identify pathways for harmonizing the PGR policy framework with rapid developments in science and information technology to ensure safeguards and enhance opportunities to address the SDGs.

The group agreed to pursue three outputs, to be completed in the next six months:

·      As a group, the participants will develop a comprehensive meeting report for public distribution. This report was initiated during the meeting and will be completed early in 2017.

·    During the meeting, participants from the DivSeek gathered input for their response to an invitation by the Secretary of the International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources in Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) “to report on the implications for the objectives of the Treaty of the technologies underlying the DivSeek initiative” (as per paragraph 6 of Resolution 3/2015 of the Sixth Session of the Treaty Governing Body). This outcome can be used by the Secretariat to compile a synthesis on this report for consideration by the Governing Body of the Treaty at its Seventh Session in 2017. Participants agreed to provide additional input on the draft submission to the Treaty upon request from DivSeek.

·      Finally, at least one scholarly article will be published as a result of this meeting describing the issues discussed and exploring potential solutions and bottlenecks to progress. The group agreed that it would be ideal to aim to develop a balanced treatment such that all participants would be happy to be identified as authors or contributors where their expertise was relevant to the subject matter. Participants also discussed how best to communicate the results with other audiences and agreed to consult with one another if any developed blog posts or articles related to the meeting.


DivSeek Partners Assembly 2016

The second DivSeek Partners Assembly took place in Saskatoon from 17 June 2016. Over 60 individuals from DivSeek partner organisations took part in the assembly, which discussed the future path for the DivSeek Initiative, how it will function and meet the needs of its partners.

The assembly discussed and approved an updated version of its Charter that reflects the fact that DivSeek is maturing as initiative and allows DivSeek Partners to have a more active role in the initiative via Working Groups. The current version of the charter is available to download here

The Working Group concept approved by the assembly will provide a key mechanism for DivSeek Partners to actively engage and address issues of importance for the DivSeek community. The Working Groups are tasked with advancing the mission and aims of DIVSEEK. These are to help harness the power of crop diversity for food and nutritional security and for societal and economic benefits by enabling breeders and researchers to more efficiently access and mobilize genetic variation in order to accelerate crop improvement. The Working Groups will be proposed and established by the DivSeek Partners.

The Assembly also discussed and agreed on a framework for multiyear workplan that would cover the following topics

·       Learning from Existing projects

·       Outreach to Stakeholders

·       Developing Working Groups

·       Hosting Meetings and Workshops

·       Coordinating and managing DivSeek Operations

The Partners were provided with updates since the Jan. 2016 roundtable discussions in San Diego that included a) extension of the landscape study to 128 projects b) hosting of two workshops, one on “Harmonizing Phenotyping and Agronomy Data and Metadata” and one on “Introduction to key international laws and regulations governing plant genetic resources” held before the Assembly, and c) election of new members of the steering committee.

During the afternoon session the partners had a brain storming session on developing uses cases for genomic and phenotypic information associated with genebanks, followed by a tour of the Plant Genetic Resources Facilities in Saskatoon and the University of Saskatchewan Field Lab.

DivSeek partner representatives outside the Plant Genetic Resources Facilities in Saskatoon June 2016

DivSeek partner representatives outside the Plant Genetic Resources Facilities in Saskatoon June 2016

DivSeek hosts roundtable discussion in San Diego

On the 8th of January over 80 individuals from DivSeek partner organisations and other interested parties came together in San Diego to learn about progress from the Steering Committee and discuss DivSeek’s role and identity in the larger landscape, its organizational structure, and its role in promoting the exchange of genetic diversity data.

After a welcome from the DivSeek Chairperson, the latest iteration of the landscape study was presented, collating information about projects in areas of relevance to DivSeek (presentation available here). A total of 95 projects have been identified to date either by DivSeek partners or via web-based searches. Those present at the meeting noted the usefulness of the study. It was suggested to convert it to an online resource for the community to enrich the project registry, promote interactions among projects and identify methods and best practices. This would require more detailed and in-depth data and metadata collection, and inclusion of more projects from developing countries. 

The workshop participants provided feedback on the development and implementation of the interim work plan for DivSeek. The plan revolved around developing use-cases as the foundation of a biodiversity informatics platform, ensuring interoperability with open-source informatics initiatives and providing support for hosting diversity data for less well-resourced crop species. In particular, the workshop discussed the repurposing of tools to enable genebanks to use genomics data for conservation and to stimulate the use of crop diversity in breeding. Other components of the programme of work that were discussed were community building, standard setting and communication to partners and stakeholders. 

To implement this plan, DivSeek continues to construct and apply a governance framework that serves its mission. In particular, DivSeek is investigating a variety of operational models, including a single team leader model for the organization, to enable the initiative to remain responsive as a partners’ organization while realizing concrete activities for the benefit of interested parties. The workshop was an opportunity to advance on this work track by collecting views and experiences from scientists working under different organizational models. 

Enabling gene banks to use genomic and phenotypic data for better conservation and use of germplasm is central to DivSeek, and having permanent unique identifiers (PUIs) to identify germplasm from which data has been derived would be a major step forward. The workshop discussed why PUIs are essential and considered metadata that need to be associated with PUIs, so that genebank managers can track accessions within and across genebanks and researchers can be assured they are working with and using the same material (presentation available here). 

Before the meeting closed, a number of DivSeek partners presented concepts and ideas for community workshops that would assist with community building, standard setting and capacity building. Topics put forward by members included:

  1. Definition of use cases for genomic data in genebanks which bring together PGR management, PGR user and the genomic research community
  2. Standards for managing and integrating crop genetic resource, genomic, phenomic and breeding data crucial for global food security
  3. Update the DivSeek community about pertinent international laws and regulations that determine access to plant genetic resources and the sharing of the benefits arising from their use.

The Steering Committee will now work with individuals and organizations to find the best mechanism to progress the ideas expressed at the workshop.

Looking forward, DivSeek will elect new Steering Committee members in March and will hold its formal Partners’ Assembly on 17 June 2016 in Saskatoon.

Note from the DivSeek Chair: The Steering Committee gets going

Dear DivSeek partners and colleagues interested in DivSeek,

On May 28th, the newly elected DivSeek Steering Committee (SC) gathered at the FAO premises in Rome. Members of the Joint Facilitation Unit (JFU) and additional staff of the International Treaty also participated in the first SC meeting.

As an initial step, the SC reviewed a draft study which takes stock of independently funded projects in areas of relevance for DivSeek. This ‘project landscape’ study identified around 50 (!) projects, including projects characterizing genebank accessions, web-based portals to access crop-diversity data, and projects developing software or data standards for sharing information about crop diversity.

The SC also began discussing components of a multi-year strategy and an initial work plan for DivSeek. This discussion was facilitated by a document containing a 'menu' of ideas and potential elements for such a strategy.  

Steering Committee and Joint Facilitation Unit members at the 28-May meeting in Rome. Front row (from left to right): Rajeev Varshney, Ruth Bastow, Elizabeth Arnaud, Susan McCouch, Daniele Manzella, Peter Bretting. Back row (from left to right): David Marshall, Peter Wenzl, Andreas Graner.

Steering Committee and Joint Facilitation Unit members at the 28-May meeting in Rome. Front row (from left to right): Rajeev Varshney, Ruth Bastow, Elizabeth Arnaud, Susan McCouch, Daniele Manzella, Peter Bretting. Back row (from left to right): David Marshall, Peter Wenzl, Andreas Graner.

The current task of the SC is to identify a set of objectives and activities for the DivSeek initiative and a mechanism for funding and administering those activities. A major goal underlying DivSeek’s strategic plan would be to augment the potential for many independent, stand-alone efforts to work together under a common umbrella to apply state-of-the-art genomic, phenomic, molecular and bioinformatics tools and strategies to characterize crop diversity and to integrate and share data and information. A second goal would be to enhance the utilization of crop diversity in plant breeding programs that seek to enhance local and global food and nutritional security. 

Governance-related topics that are critical to success of the DivSeek initiative were also discussed, including private-sector engagement, recruitment of new members to expand DivSeek’s constituency, and examination of the roles and responsibilities of the JFU, the SC and the Partners Assembly (PA) as the initiative evolves.

Among the next steps -- 

  • The JFU was encouraged to expand and refine the ‘project landscape’ study, and to make results available online through the DivSeek website and as a peer-reviewed publication. Please see attached list of currently funded projects relevant to the DivSeek initiative and let us know of any others that you would like to see included in the survey (
  • During the coming months, the SC, with support from the JFU, will elaborate a proposal for a multi-year DivSeek strategy. We expect to share this proposal and an initial work plan with DivSeek Partners at the next Assembly, in January 2016. The strategy will include ideas for working groups and workshops on key topics of broad interest.
  • An independent governance-expert committee was convened to propose a framework for engaging with the private sector, outline guidelines for publishing DivSeek documents, clarify the governance structure of DivSeek and describe lines of communication and governance principles that will allow it to remain flexible and evolve in the future.

I take this moment to reflect on the mission of the DivSeek initiative, which is to help unlock the potential of crop diversity so it can be utilized to enhance the productivity, sustainability and resilience of crops and agricultural systems throughout the world. The mission is multi-faceted, and we count on the input and support of DivSeek's partners to help us move forward.

Susan McCouch

Working on a Long-Held Dream

An International Panel of Experts to Steer a Global Initiative to Harness Crop Diversity

Almost sixty organizations from two-dozen countries have elected a group of international experts to steer the Diversity Seek (DivSeek) initiative, a global partnership to harness crop diversity for climate adaptation and food security.

On May 28, this group of nine scientists – officially named the DivSeek Steering Committee – will meet in Rome to lay the groundwork for DivSeek’s initial work-plan.

“DivSeek is a global meeting platform for researchers and projects that use new, game-changing technologies to unlock the untapped value of crop genetic resources. We will be taking initial steps toward synchronizing and reinforcing global efforts in this direction,”

says Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton, member of the DivSeek Steering Committee and in charge of the genebank at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Topics to be discussed will include data-management standards and platforms and a landscaping study to identify already ongoing projects across a variety of crops. At the core of this work-plan is the coordinated harnessing of seed collections in genebanks for genes underlying traits such as drought tolerance or resistance to pests, and the use of these genes in adapting crops to new challenges like climate change.

Susan McCouch, the elected Chair of the DivSeek Assembly, explains:

“There are still vast reserves of valuable genes and traits hidden in low-performing wild ancestors and long-forgotten early farmer varieties of rice that can be coaxed out of these ancient plants by crossing them with higher-yielding modern relatives.”

This opportunity to realize a long-held dream by many working in this area presents itself just in time for agriculture to adapt to a changing climate.

Since the official DivSeek launch, which was held in San Diego in January 2015, the initiative has already received much welcomed attention in the media, including an endorsement from the prestigious Nature Genetics journal and coverage by the equally prestigious Science journal and outlets such as SciDev.

It was during this meeting that the DivSeek Charter was adopted, which outlines the purpose and the principles of the initiative.

Crop diversity is one of the most fundamental yet grossly underutilized global public goods. Let's congratulate these scientists for accepting the responsibility to steer the DivSeek initiative; nothing less than global food security is at stake here – not a small task for a group of nine!

-- END --


The elected Steering Committee members

  • Management of seed banks
  • Genetics and genomics research
    • Sarah Ayling from The Genome Analysis Centre in the UK
    • Susan McCouch from Cornell University in the USA*
    • Rajeev Varshney from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Hyderabad, India
  • Governance and intellectual-property rights
    • Emily Marden from the University of British Columbia, Canada

* Susan McCouch also doubles as the Chair of the DivSeek Assembly


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