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UK grants 10m towards seed bank projects

By Jess Halliday , 28-May-2007

The UK's Department for International Development is to invest £10m (c €14.7m) in banking seeds of essential food crops over the next four years, as part of an effort to preserve food sources for poor farmers and maintain crop diversity.

Seed banks are an important resource in conserving the right kind of crop to thrive in certain conditions, and thus they have an important role to play in food security. They are also viewed as a gene-pool to which breeders can return should they need to breed crops with specific characteristics to counter detrimental factors in their environment, such as drought or pests. The investment, announced last week as part of an event to mark the United Nations' International Day for Biodiversity, is intended to help the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) bank the seeds of the world's 21 major food crops, which include wheat, barley, rice and maize. It may not sound like an immense task at first, but there are 100,000 different varieties of wheat, for instance. GCDT has set up the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic, which is described as "the ultimate safety net for global crop diversity", since regular seed banks can be vulnerable to conflict and natural disasters. The Svalbard resource is expected to open this year. The vault, which will house up to three million different types of seeds, is being constructed inside the mountain close to Longyearbyen, Norway. The funding will go towards an endowment fund set up by the GCDT which aims to raise US$260m (€193.3m) to finance its activities. Some $135m (€100.3m) has already been pledged by donors including Norway, the US, Australia and the Gates Foundation. "The support of the UK will make a major impact," said Cary Fowler, executive secretary of the GCDT. "Conserving crop diversity is a long-term investment, which yields huge returns in human well-being, yet many governments are unwilling to make such long-term commitments." Last week researchers from the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) issued a stark warning on the need to bank seeds to combat the effects of climate change. Their study, presented at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Rome, Italy, found that many as 61 percent of the 51 wild peanut species analysed and 12 percent of the 108 wild potato species analysed could become extinct as the result of climate change in the next 50 years. Moreover, the surviving species would be confined to smaller areas, which would further impair their capacity to survive. "Our results would indicate that the survival of many species of crop wild relatives, not just wild potato, peanuts and cowpea, are likely to be seriously threatened even with the most conservative estimates regarding the magnitude of climate change," said lead author Andy Jarvis. "There is an urgent need to collect and store the seeds of wild relatives in crop diversity collections before they disappear. At the moment, existing collections are conserving only a fraction of the diversity of wild species that are out there," he added. The irony of the situation is that domesticated crops are likely to experience problems as a result of climate change - but just when they need to revert to the gene pool to find ways of adapting to overcome these, the wild varieties are likely to disappear.

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