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Friday, 30 August, 2002, 08:56 GMT 09:56 UK
Alert sounds for seed banks
Collecting wild rice samples in Lao PDR
Collecting wild rice samples in Lao PDR

The world's gene banks, the Noah's Arks of biodiversity, are themselves at risk, according to scientists.

They say the banks' funding is often precarious, and many collections are not sustainable for very much longer.

They believe this could jeopardise the crop diversity on which humans depend for food.


Many critical gene bank collections are in a precarious state.

Professor Jeff Waage, Imperial College
A new body is being launched to try to raise money to safeguard the banks.

It will be called the Global Conservation Trust, and aims to raise $260m to protect the gene banks "in perpetuity", rescuing them from reliance on insecure annual funding.

It is being launched by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The problem is urgent, according to the scientists' report, Crop Diversity at Risk: The case for sustaining crop collections.

It was produced by Imperial College, London, UK, and compares data from 99 countries collected by the FAO in 2000 with similar data from 151 countries collected in 1996.

'Agricultural heritage'

The comparison showed that, although the number of plant samples held in gene banks had increased in 66% of countries, the banks' budgets remained static in 35% and had been cut in another 25%.

The authors say about 1,470 gene banks maintain more than 5.4m plant samples, of which perhaps 2m are distinct non-duplicates.

They say: "Gene bank collections represent a significant share of the existing agricultural heritage of humankind - the legacy of some 10,000 years of planting, ploughing and breeding of crops for human use."

One particular concern is the periodic need to plant saved seeds and harvest new seeds from the plants.

The researchers say 27% of developed countries and more than half of developing ones say there is an increase in the number of plant samples in urgent need of this sort of regeneration.

Professor Jeff Waage, head of the department of agricultural sciences at Imperial College, said: "Many critical gene bank collections are in a precarious state.

"If they are allowed to fail, we will lose the valuable crop diversity they contain for ever.

"The data point us to one major conclusion: gene banks can no longer rely on uncertain annual sources of funding as most do now."

He was speaking at a meeting here on the fringe of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which ends on 4 September.

Extinction

The FAO estimates that about 75% of the original varieties of agricultural crops have been lost from farm fields since 1900.

These include wheat varieties in China, maize in Mexico and apples in the US.

The wild relatives of tomatoes and cassava, a starchy root that is a staple crop in many poor countries, are approaching extinction because of deforestation and development.

Professor M S Swaminathan of India said: "Crop diversity collections are the engine of innovation in agriculture.

"Unless they are saved, it will be only a matter of decades before agricultural yields will fall, and pests and disease will gain an edge in farmers' fields."


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01 Aug 02 | Science/Nature
02 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
04 Apr 02 | Science/Nature
13 Dec 00 | Science/Nature
19 Sep 99 | Science/Nature
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