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Money given to save genetics of food

April 20, 2007 By Lucy Odling-Smee This article courtesy of Nature News.

Cash injection will safegaurd 21 critical food crops.

Funds have been announced to save 165,000 varieties of 21 food crops, from wheat to potatoes, some of which form the staple diet of people living in developing countries.

The effort, carried out by the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the United Nations Foundation, aims to pool genetic information about the crops, as well as store and maintain live seeds and root-vegetable samples.

"Most of the crop diversity that is threatened with extinction for the 21 crops we've selected will be saved by this project," says Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. "That's a momentus development."

Globalization has tended to homogenize the world's breeds of crops, as large-scale commercial entities focus on only the most efficient and saleable varieties of popular foods. But the threats of plant disease and climate change mean that growing only a select number of crops is a risky business. Researchers are keen to keep a living record of other varieties, so that plant breeders can take advantage of their various traits. The genes from these other crops may one day, for example, help to make maize more resistant to drought or to flooding.

The latest initiative is being funded by a US$37.5 million grant — the largest crop biodiversity grant ever made. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is providing $30 million of this, and the other $7.5 million is coming from Norway's government.


Much of the world's crop diversity is currently held in seed banks in developing countries. But without sufficient funding to maintain these collections, genetic traits are steadily being lost, explains Fowler.

Seeds don't last forever. So part of the money will go to ensuring that the seeds held in developing countries are replenished with fresh ones. The initiative will also send some of these seeds to additional storage facilities for extra safekeeping. And in some cases, backups will be taken to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a central repository buried deep inside an Arctic mountain in Norway. This last-resort depository of agricultural diversity, which will open its doors every year to take fresh deliveries from many of the 1,400 crop repositories around the world, is due to open in March 2008 (see 'Norway unveils design of 'doomsday' seed bank' ).

The money will also fund a project to pool, and make globally accessible, information on crop biodiversity. A central database holding all known genetic information about the crops will allow plant breeders wanting to create a disease-resistant strain of banana, for example, to hunt for genes of interest. Currently, plant breeders have to grapple with different systems created according to different standards and in different languages.

Root of the problem

The selected crops include several that can't be grown from seed, such as cassava, yam and coconut, for which storage is trickier. The project's grant will fund research into how to best conserve these plants. Techniques that have been tried and successfully tested on potatoes, for example, include continually growing small samples in the laboratory, or freezing tissue samples in liquid nitrogen.

"Put simply, crop diversity allows us to grow food, and this partnership with the Gates Foundation provides an opportunity to meet a host of food security challenges far into the future," said Erik Solheim, Norway's minister of international development in a statement.

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