Los Banos, Philippines (AFP) Oct 24, 2010
In a greenhouse near the Philippine capital, botanists grow strange grasses that bear tiny seeds which are promptly flown to a doomsday vault under Norway's Arctic permafrost.
The Norway deliveries are just the newest facet of a decades-old effort by more than 100 countries to save the world's many varieties of rice which might otherwise be lost.
A fire-proof, quake-proof, typhoon-proof gene bank set up by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines in 1962 now holds 115,000 varieties of one of the world's most important grains.
"We've got genes stored which could potentially help us increase the yields of rice, improve pest tolerance and disease resistance, and help us address the effects of climate change," IRRI geneticist Fiona Hay said.
The rice varieties are grown at IRRI's sprawling complex at the university town of Los Banos, two hours' drive south of Manila, so that they can be provided -- free of charge -- to farmers or governments around the world.
Yet Hay said that rice varieties were constantly being lost forever, despite the preservation efforts of IRRI, a non-profit organisation funded by governments, multilateral banks and philanthropists.
Such losses are under a global spotlight this week as delegates from more than 190 countries meet at a UN summit in Nagoya, Japan, to map out a strategy to stop the world's rapid loss of biodiversity in all plants and animals.
A rice variety can easily vanish due to pests, disease, drought or other natural disasters like a cyclone, or if for some reason farmers simply stop planting it, Hay said.
Not just urbanisation, but even farming can push wild rice varieties into extinction.
And while some countries run their own gene banks, they are not always successful in preserving seeds. In the tropics, high humidity causes rice seeds to spoil after several years, Hay said.
At the IRRI gene bank in the Philippines, seeds are stored in dry and cool conditions and can remain usable for up to 40 years.
The institute keeps its base collection in tiny, sealed, bar-coded aluminium cans in a room kept at a temperature well below freezing.
They include a Malaysian variety that was collected soon after the gene bank opened in 1962, some reed-like Latin American ones that grow taller than a man, and Indian varieties that look more like crawling weeds.
Duplicates in small foil sachets of about 400 seeds each are stored in a separate vault kept at two degrees Celsius (35.6 Fahrenheit) and low humidity for passing on to those who need them for farming or research.
Given the importance of the collection, extra insurance is always desirable -- hence the rice gene bank being duplicated in Svalbard, Norway, Hay told AFP on a tour last week of the Philippine facility.
Since the Svalbard seed vault opened in February 2008, IRRI has reproduced 70,000 of its own grains and sent them in tiny freeze-dried aluminium cans to northern Norway, in a series of flights that take four days.
One final delivery of about 40,000 varieties is due to be flown out from Manila airport this week to complete the project.
The seeds include those no longer grown by farmers, plus 4,000-odd weeds with genes harnessed by scientists to make the rice plant more aromatic and more resistant to pests and disease, and tolerant of drought and saltwater.
Once completed, the Norway facility will act as a further backup to a US Department of Agriculture vault in Colorado that already holds duplicates of IRRI's seeds.
IRRI has in particular helped Cambodia's farmers to recover from the ravages of war. The Khmer Rouge regime killed millions of people -- many through starvation -- and forced farmers to grow only certain rice varieties in the 1970s.
Flora de Guzman, senior research manager of the gene bank, said she had once processed a request by Cambodia to send back seeds for about 500 of their native rice varieties.
"They lost the materials during the war. We had the collection here, so between 1981 and 1989 we repatriated the varieties that they lost," she said.
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