The repositories of crop diversity are continuing to decline in their ability to maintain plants for future use, a global survey has shown. The findings were presented today at the United Nations (UN) World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. Also at the summit, a conservation group called for an endowment to ensure that the diversity of 35 key food crops is preserved for future breeding.
Crop gene banks around the world hold a total of perhaps 2 million varieties of plants. Some of these, such as wheat, can be stored for years as seed. Others require more care. Banana plants, for example, must be maintained in tissue culture. But even seeds need occasional replanting to ensure a viable supply, a laborious and costly process called regeneration. In a 1996 survey of crop gene banks in 151 countries, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that many facilities were rapidly deteriorating and had a large backlog of samples needing regeneration.
Chris Higgins of Imperial College London, U.K., and colleagues have analyzed recently released results of a second FAO study, conducted in 2000. "The situation has gotten worse," says Geoffrey Hawtin, director of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Rome, Italy. While the number of plant samples has gone up in 66% of countries, budgets for gene banks have increased in only 33%, and a quarter have seen their budgets fall. There are now fewer staff in 19% of countries, and the regeneration backlog has stayed the same or gotten worse in 62% of countries. Most affected are gene banks in developing countries.
Also today, the Global Conservation Trust announced plans to raise a $260 million endowment for gene banks. The trust is a partnership of FAO and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which runs 11 major gene banks. Although the details still need to be worked out, an expert panel will decide who's eligible for funding. At the summit, the Swiss government ponied up $10 million. Once the endowment reaches 10 times that figure, the trust will solicit proposals. "It's a wonderful idea," says Pat Mooney of the ETC Group in Winnepeg, Canada, which studies technology in developing countries. "I really hope it works."