Dominique Dumet: Safeguarding agrobiodiversity for the future

Dominique Dumet showing seeds, IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver.
Dominique Dumet showing seeds, IITA genebank. Photo by J. Oliver.

As the head of IITA’s Genetic Resources Center (GRC), Dominique Dumet says she is something between a curator and an administrator. She is involved in conservation (field bank, seed bank, and in vitro bank, which includes cryopreservation for clonal crops), checking inventory, improving processes and workflows, transferring technology, and computerizing the system. In addition, she is involved in recruiting staff and selecting students, germplasm distribution and acquisition, research in plant genetic resources, staff management, research project development and proposal writing, and communication to donors on special projects and about germplasm at IITA during scientific meetings.

She is primarily interested in ex situ conservation and particularly low temperature biology and its application to conservation systems (cryopreservation, sanitation). She has an overview of all domains of germplasm conservation and takes part in various research projects as a collaborator to “add value to the germplasm.” She no longer considers herself a researcher, since she spends most of her time administering the genebank and planning or writing proposal or reports. This International Year of Biodiversity, she explains what GRC plans in support of promoting biodiversity conservation.

Why is biodiversity conservation important? What are your priorities?
Our work is very important. We try to reduce the rate of irreversible loss in the biological diversity that is used in agriculture. All conservation aspects are important, but maybe the conservation sensu stricto comes first if we have to choose as we have a responsibility towards the international community and if we do not work well, all may suffer from our mistakes.

What do you like about working in Africa? In your field of specialization?
I am proud of my job. I hope I contribute to improving the well being of the poorest even if for one iota. I also like being in an environment very different to the one in which I grew up.

In vitro biology and cryopreservation in particular is my field of specialization. Cryopreservation fascinates me as I find it amazing that we can stop the life of a tissue and bring it back again whenever we want to do so. In the frozen stage, all biochemical or biological processes stop—that means that everything stops moving at one moment—and then the magic of life makes it start again so long as physical and chemical parameters are adequate (cooling and thawing temperature, osmotic pressure, light, growth regulators, etc.).

What are your challenges and constraints at work?
The challenges are to maintain the bank at international standards and to keep all the accessions alive. Some constraints include unforeseen requests which make us work under pressure as we still have our routine activities, and new concepts that make our system obsolete.

Collection recording with barcode inventory system, IITA genebank. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.
Collection recording with barcode inventory system, IITA genebank. Photo by O. Adebayo, IITA.

How do you make the many visitors to GRC understand and appreciate what you are doing?
I give information on the basic concepts of diversity, I explain why we need to conserve it ex situ (out of the natural environment) because of the genetic erosion taking place in the field. Then I explain how we maintain it via seeds or field and in vitro banks, depending on the crop. I also show some examples of diversity, e.g., cowpea seed collection and the variation observed at seed coat. I provide some background on the gaps in the collection based on GIS. And I generally conclude with the International Treaty and access to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA).

Please cite some concrete steps being taken by IITA in biodiversity conservation.
IITA was involved in collecting genetic resources as early as the 1970s so we do have a long history in investing in biodiversity conservation. Many collecting missions have been organized and germplasm has been also acquired from many national collections. The majority of the collections have now been described at agromorphological level, but we are still working on it for maize, for example. We have to characterize any new accessions coming into the bank.

Recently we organized a meeting and survey to develop the cowpea global conservation strategy (Trust-funded). We will have the same strategy developed for yam in 2010 (we are also organizing the Trust-funded expert meeting for this). We are developing more efficient conservation processes such as cryopreservation (this lowers costs but also limits genetic variation during storage). We are fingerprinting the collections of clonal crops to identify germplasm at accession level. This will further guide our collecting missions.

Do you think governments everywhere are serious about biodiversity conservation?
That depends on the country. The richer ones certainly take more serious action—but the poorest (or the less organized) do not have this ‘luxury’. I think all understand the value of biodiversity but as it is a long-term investment to store and as the return on investment is not guaranteed, countries either ignore it or do little about it.

What is the state of agrobiodiversity in Africa?
It is not too bad, compared to other continents—my view on this is that Africa has not yet undergone its Green Revolution (but this opinion may be controversial). However, things may change very quickly, especially now that Africa is seen as a big field where agriculture can take off. Somehow, if we are successful in producing high-yielding crops the adoption rate of such high potential crops may quickly wipe away natural diversity, including (but not only) the landraces (varieties developed by farmers over thousands of years). When the elite genotype replaces older varieties it makes the low performing one obsolete and it increases the rate of planting (as it can generate higher revenue). We have to be vigilant about this since we, as breeders of improved varieties, are partly responsible. There is a conflict of interest between agriculture intensification and conservation of biodiversity.

Do farmers understand the need to conserve seeds or genetic resources for future generations?
In general I would think they are the first one to know about biodiversity but they may not be aware of the amplitude of the “erosion” of species.

Some are already organized in community based genebanks and there are participatory conservation projects within the CGIAR but I do not know enough about the topic. This may be an important complementary approach, but participatory conservation may be difficult to sustain. Besides in community based conservation, the incentive is cultural preference. That means only materials of immediate interest for the farmers are kept.

Bambara groundnut seeds. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.
Bambara groundnut seeds. Photo by J. Oliver, IITA.

What is the status of IITA’s seed shipment to Svalbard in Norway?
We had planned on sending more than 20,000 accessions of cowpea and its relatives, bambara groundnut, maize, and soybean in the next few years. Cowpea makes up the majority of the accessions that we are sending. There is a bit of deviation from the original plan but we are more or less on track.

Being the lead person in agrobiodiversity conservation in the Institute, how do you plan to mark the UN International Year of Biodiversity?
We plan to raise awareness about biodiversity among the youth, i.e., high school students and adults in the local community. We will organize quiz contests, tree planting activities, excursions to the IITA forest and to the genebank; produce information materials (videos, flyers, handouts) and set up roaming exhibits and posters.

We also plan to organize seminars and a field or biodiversity/community day for students, farmers, and residents in the local community. We will be coordinating with partners from the University of Ibadan, local schools, Alliance Française, and other organizations, such as the National Center for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, Nigeria Institute of Horticulture, and University of Abeokuta.

What would be your message to colleagues about biodiversity conservation?
Don’t just conserve; educate as well.