An unprecedented new agreement --part of an aggressive move to safeguard the world's food production - aims to protect thousands of the world's unique rice varieties.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust announced the historic new agreement at a special dedication ceremony at IRRI's Genetic Resources Center, which houses more than 100,000 samples of rice, the biggest and most important such collection in the world.
The funding agreement is expected to help conserve and manage forever the extraordinary diversity of arguably the world's most important crop. Today, about three billion people depend on rice for their survival, with the thousands of varieties carefully stored at IRRI providing the last line of defense between them and possible famine, especially in times of war, natural disasters, and attacks from pests and diseases.
The agreement offers for the first time in the history of modern agricultural research stable and long-term support to an unrivaled collection of genetic diversity that is estimated to include at least 80,000 distinct rice varieties. The collection is considered the Institute's "crown jewels" and is kept in a special earthquake-proof and fireproof facility that must be maintained at temperatures as low as --19 degrees Celsius.
At a special ceremony on the same day, the Institute also dedicated the Genetic Resources Center (GRC) to Dr. Te-Tzu Chang, the founder of the International Rice Germplasm Center -- one of the predecessors of the GRC. Dr. Chang, who passed away last year in Taiwan, China, was a world authority on rice genetics and conservation and spent 30 years at IRRI collecting and storing rice varieties from all over Asia and the world. From now on, the GRC will be known as the T.T. Chang Genetic Resources Center.
"With almost half the world's population depending on rice, we wanted to make sure IRRI's genebank was insulated from the whims of fluctuating funding," said Cary Fowler, the Trust's executive secretary. "The agreement goes to the core of the Trust's mission, which is to guarantee the conservation of the world's crop diversity, and it's hard to imagine a more important crop for sustaining humanity than rice."
This agreement, the first major conservation grant made by the Trust, is structured to reflect the long-term vision of both organizations. "Short-term thinking about funding has wreaked havoc with effective conservation," continued Dr. Fowler. "This agreement is probably unique among funding contracts in having no end date. I am pleased that our first long-term grant protects the crop which feeds the most people, for the longest term imaginable -- forever."
Under the agreement, IRRI has pledged to designate a portion of its financial assets to generate $400,000 in annual income that will be invested in the genebank, which will unlock $200,000 from the Trust each year. The agreement allows for inflationary increases and will remain in force "indefinitely." The money will go toward, among other things, acquiring any rice varieties not currently in the repository and making sure the storage systems for long-term conservation are up to international standards.
"The rice genebank is not just a scientific exercise in seed genetics but a major hedge against disaster that ensures farmers throughout the world will always have the rice varieties they need to maintain food security," said Dr. Robert S. Zeigler, IRRI's director general.
For example, after the Asian tsunami (December 26, 2004), IRRI was able to reach into its collection and provide farmers in areas that had been under seawater with varieties of rice capable of growing in salty soils. In addition, several countries, including Cambodia, East Timor, India, Nepal, and the Philippines, have turned to the IRRI genebank to restore native varieties of rice that, for a variety of reasons, had disappeared from domestic production.
Last year, IRRI introduced a new variety of rice able to withstand being completely submerged in a flood. And, this variety is playing a central role in an initiative of IRRI's umbrella organization, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), to develop crops that will allow farmers to deal with the potentially devastating effects of climate change.
In each case, the genebank played an essential role, helping to provide the genetic diversity needed to develop such varieties.
According to Dr. Zeigler, the grant breaks new ground in the funding of arguably the most important resource in the world: "Rice diversity, like all crop diversity, is at risk for the want of relatively small amounts of money. Given that we are talking about the biological base upon which the global food supply is built, it is extraordinary that the current situation is so precarious. The economics speak for themselves."
According to Dr. Fowler, an independent study estimated that adding just an additional 1,000 rice samples to IRRI's genebank would generate an annual stream of benefits to poor farmers of $325 million. Amazingly, these annual benefits would be more than the entire one-off costs of permanently endowing all the diversity of all the most important crops forever.
Dr. Zeigler emphasized the challenge of funding such work by saying it took IRRI decades to build up the cash reserves necessary to match the funds from the Trust. "The Institute is doing this using its own resources; there are no other donors involved apart from the Trust," he explained. "It's also vital that people understand the problem does not end here. This funding is incredibly important, but more is still needed."
Citing just two examples, he said funding was still needed to determine exactly how many distinct rice varieties there were, and to further study the characteristics of different rice varieties in the constant search for insect and disease resistance.
The work by the Trust to safeguard the future of rice cultivation is also only one element of its broader work to secure the full genetic diversity of all the world's important food crops. In addition, as part of a safe global system, the Trust is also supporting the "fail-safe" seed vault in the Arctic -- known as the Svalbard International Seed Vault, or the Doomsday Vault - that will eventually contain every known crop variety.
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