Third World crops get $37.5 mln gene storage bank
2007-04-22 0:00

By Alister Doyle |

A $37.5 million seed storage plan will help safeguard crops vital for developing nations from global warming and other threats, the head of a U.N.-backed scheme said on Thursday.

The cash, $30 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and $7.5 million from Norway's government, would preserve genes of crops grown in Africa, Asia and Latin America such as cassava, yams, bananas and rice.

"This initiative will rescue the most globally important developing-country collections of the world's 21 most important food crops," said Cary Fowler, director of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The U.N.-backed trust said the money would "secure over 95 percent of the endangered crop diversity held in developing country gene banks, many of which are under-funded and in disrepair".

Some crops grown in poor countries are known as "orphan crops" because they have been largely neglected by modern breeders. Some, such as yams, cannot be grown from seeds, but need to be cultivated from cuttings, roots, or cell cultures.

"This is material that is really under imminent threat of becoming extinct," Fowler said.

The project would help collect and save thousands of different varieties of each of 21 key world food crops, also including wheat, maize and sorghum, he said.

Seeds now poorly stored might have genes enabling them to resist drought, flooding or heatwaves -- qualities that may be in demand because of global warming widely blamed on human burning of fossil fuels.

"Not only will this partnership combat hunger and protect crop diversity, but it also helps nations prepare for the impacts of climate change," said Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation.

Doomsday Vault
The trust is also building a "doomsday vault" in the Norwegian Arctic to safeguard millions of seeds. The new funding would allow developing countries and research groups to send 450,000 seed samples to the vault, due to open in March 2008.

Fowler said the new funds would help set up a global computer database to guide farmers.

"If you're an American farmer and search a gene bank in the U.S. for a strain of disease-resistant wheat there's quite a good possibility that it isn't there," he said. "But you might find it in by searching records in Ethiopia or Poland."

One possibility was a database modelled on online bookseller Amazon to link up national crop records, he said. "We think that virtually all the world's diversity can be found and accessed through such a system in five years," he said.

Crop varieties are being lost almost daily, such as rice ruined by typhoons in the Philippines.

The trust was set up in 2005 and has now raised $110 million, including the $37.5 million, of a funding goal of $260 million. The money from Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and his wife Melinda is the biggest single donation.

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