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Abstract, Researchgate, 2014

The term genetic resources, or germplasm, refers to propagating material of plants and animals, including seeds, pollen, vegetative propagules and animal semen. It can also encompass whole plants and animals, in their role as reservoirs of genetic material. Germplasm forms the basis of plant and animal reproduction, and thus of the conservation and generation of genetic diversity. Although germplasm conservation is usually thought of as a tool for making the diversity of crops and their wild relatives available to plant breeders, it is now recognised as having equally important roles in the reintroduction of traditional crops to farm fields or gardens, or of wild species to wild habitats.

In theory, germplasm and ethnobiology should be closely interlinked. Plant germplasm, for example, has two central attributes that are relevant to ethnobiology: use, and threatened conservation status. A significant proportion of all plants fall directly within the ‘useful plants’ brief of the ethnobotanist. Karl Hammer et al. (2003: 242) have estimated that about 122,000 of the world’s approximately 300,000 known higher plant species are useful as crops or crop wild relatives, and there are probably tens of thousands of species that humans can use for other purposes. The vulnerable status of a significant proportion of plants is not disputed: between a quarter and a third of all plant species are threatened by extinction, and massive losses of agricultural biodiversity have occurred over the past 50 years. For ethnobiology, a discipline much concerned with sustainable development, germplasm conservation is clearly central. Yet, the three most-used ethnobotany manuals barely mention germplasm or genebanks, and the same is true of almost all ethnobotanical papers (Martin, 1995; Alexiades, 1996; Anderson et al., 2011).

In this chapter we have two aims. The first is to orientate ethnobiologists in the variety of techniques used to preserve germplasm. Although it is now widely accepted that an approach that uses and integrates all of these will be most successful in preserving biodiversity, publications still tend to cover just one technique. Here, we touch on all, although giving most attention to seed genebanks. Second, we put forward some suggestions on how the ethnobiologist can integrate genebank collections into their research and practice. We expect these will also be useful to institutional germplasm curators seeking to take a more ethnobotanical approach to collections. In this chapter, we give details of storage practices for plant and animal germplasm at the United States’ National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, but in general we avoid giving too much detail on collecting and curation, as these topics are well covered in guides, many available online.