Germplasm Database

The “Green” Revolution

by: Gaetano Laghetti (

Sowing rice in India (from: “What the "Green Revolution" Did for India. The Passing of Bhaskar Save“ - Source)

The term Green Revolution has been introduced to indicate a novel approach applied to agriculture that allowed a significant increase of crop production in many parts of the world between the years ’40 and ’70 of the last century, thanks to the use of genetically-selected plant varieties, fertilizers, phytochemicals, water supply and other technical means.

The beginning of the green revolution is thought to date back to 1944, when a Research programme aimed at increasing the crop productivity of Mexican farms (the Mexican Agricultural Program) was founded by the Rockefeller Foundation, with surprising results: Mexico went from the importation of half its wheat requirments to self-sufficiency in 1956, to the exportation of half a million tons of wheat in 1964.

In fact, such approach to genetic improvement was initially implemented by an Italian researcher, Nazareno Strampelli, in the early twentieth century. Its hybrid varieties of wheat were one of the decisive elements that allowed to win the so-called "battle of the grain" launched in those years by Benito Mussolini.

However, most of the merit of the above agricultural transformation is traditionally given to the American geneticist Norman Borlaug, who crossed short with tall, highly productive wheat varieties, obtaining wheats of reduced size though highly productive. Another objective of Borlaug’s work was to create wheat varieties able to adapt to adverse climatic conditions. For his work and commitment in the struggle against hunger, he was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Vegetables on a supermarket shelf in India (from: “Deccan Chronicle“, by V. Ashok Kumar - Source)

The Green Revolution has not proved to be free from several problems, including:

Genetic Diversity of Crops

Teze Bazar in Azerbaijan (from: “Africa Thoughts“ - Source)

Unfortunately, human history is full of dramatic events deriving from the extreme genetic homogeneity of crops. Indeed, crop genetic diversity is not only a technical question, but also an economic problem. For example:

Production should be increased by 60% to feed the 8 billion people inhabiting the planet in the next 20 years, and only high-productive varieties may ensure adequate results to this purpose. Though, to safe the future of agriculture, we must ensure the wider choice as possible in terms of original genes to be adapted to the needs of tomorrow.

Brief history of ex-situ conservation of Plant Genetic Resource (PGR)

Unfortunately, abandoned crop varieties undergo extinction in a few years. To counterbalance this irreversible process, the international scientific community began to mobilize itself. The first was the Russian geneticist Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) who explored the centers of origin of crops to collect seed samples, that were then stored in the first seed bank in the world in St. Petersburg (Russia). In the same period, the American geneticist Jack Harlan began to study the problem, and a series of world conferences on this topic were held, laying down the scientific basis and operational plans that different countries began to apply. Many international institutions were also established with the main purpose of protection of Plant Genetic Resources, as FAO, CGIAR, etc.

In the years 1920-1930 N.I. Vavilov and H. Harlan began to denounce the progressive disappearance of local varieties from most agricultural areas of the planet. Ex-situ conservation of crop germplasm threatened by extinction or genetic erosion began in those years.

Nikolaj Ivanovic Vavilov (Source)
Jack Rodney Harlan (from: “Africa Thoughts“ - Source)

Before the "FAO/IBP Technical Conference" held in 1967, there were only very few GeneBank (called "stations of introduction"). The oldest and most important were:

Teze Bazar in Azerbaijan (from: “Africa Thoughts“ (Source)

During the "FAO/IBP Technical Conference" held in Rome in 1967 and organized by FAO and the IBP (International Biological Programme) a global strategy for the conservation of plant genetic resources started to develop, headed by a group of experts. The basic strategy could be summarized as follows:

During the works of the 3rd "FAO / IBP Technical Conference" held in Rome in 1969, regions of the world and crops most prone to genetic erosion were defined:

Teze Bazar in Azerbaijan (from: “Africa Thoughts“ (Source)

and a categorization of ex situ germplasm collections was established:

In 1972 the "United Nations Conference on the Human Environment" was held in Stockholm (Sweden), where genebank duties were established and the distinction between ex situ and in situ conservation was first stated. It was also established that ex situ and in situ conservation are both necessary and complementary, and that PGRs had to be stored in ex situ national or regional conservation centers.

In addition, a network of ex situ PGRs institutions was founded, with the following steps:

The "FAO/IBP Technical Conference" held in 1973 defined the strategies and the techniques to be adopted for exploration, collection, sampling and conservation of ex situ collections (field crops propagated by seed or vegetatively, tree species; pollen conservation, etc.) .

PGR Conservation in Italy

In Italy twenty banks of germplasm of wild species currently exist, operating under local authorities, protected areas, universities or private companies. In 2005, a national network called RIBES (Network of Italian germplasm banks for ex situ conservation of wild species of the Italian flora) has been established.

In the forestry sector, germplasm banks are mainly used for short-term storage of genetic material for marketing.

At the international level, the largest centers for the conservation of PGRs are the "Millennium Seed Bank" of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (England) aimed at the conservation of wild species, and the "Svalbard Global Seed Vault" in Norway aimed at the conservation of crop diversity.