The International Rice Research Institute(IRRI) based here now holds 115, 000 varieties of one of the world’s most important grains — rice stored in a fire-proof, quake-proof, and typhoon-proof gene bank, officials on Tuesday said.
”We’ve now genes stored which could potentially help us increase the yields of rice, improve pest tolerance and disease resistance, and help us address the effects of climate change,” said Fiona Hay, geneticist of IRRI.
Hay said the rice varieties are grown at IRRI’s sprawling complex at the university town of Los Banos, two hours drive south of Manila, so that they can be provided for free to farmers or governments around the world.
She said that botanists grow strange grasses that bear tiny seeds which are promptly flown to a doomsday vault under Norway’s Arctic permafrost, adding, the Norway deliveries are just the newest facet of a decades-old effort by more than 100 countries to save the world’s many varieties of rice which might otherwise be lost.
Hay, however, said that rice varieties were constantly being lost forever, despite the preservation efforts of IRRI, a non-profit organization funded by governments, multilateral banks and philanthropists.
These losses are under a global spotlight this week as delegates from more than 190 countries meet at a United Nations (UN) summit in Nagoya, Japan, to map out a strategy to stop the world’s rapid loss of biodiversity in all plants and animals.
According to Hay, a rice variety can easily vanish due to pests, disease, drought or other natural disasters like a cyclone, or if for some reasons farmers simply stop planting it. Not just urbanization, but even farming can push wild rice varieties into extinction, he added.
And while some countries run their own gene banks, they are not always successful in preserving seeds. In the tropics, high humidity causes rice seeds to spoil after several years, Hay said.
At the IRRI gene bank in Los Banos, seeds are stored in dry and cool conditions and can remain usable for up to 40 years, he said, pointing out that the Institute keeps its base collection in tiny, sealed, bar-coded aluminum cans in a room kept at a temperature well below freezing.
They include a Malaysian variety that was collected soon after the gene bank opened in 1962, some reed-like Latin American ones that grow taller than a man, and Indian varieties that look more like crawling weeds, Hay said.
Duplicates in small foil sachets of about 400 seeds each are stored in a separate vault kept at two degrees Celsius (35.6 Fahrenheit) and low humidity for passing on to those who need them for farming or research, he said.
Given the importance of the collection, extra insurance is always desirable — hence the rice gene bank being duplicated in Svalbard, Norway, Hay said on a tour last week of the Philippine facility.
Since the Svalbard seed vault opened in February 2008, IRRI has reproduced 70,000 of its own grains and sent them in tiny freeze-dried aluminum cans to northern Norway, in a series of flights that take four days.
One final delivery of about 40,000 varieties is due to be flown out from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) this week to complete the project, Hay said.
He said the seeds include those no longer grown by farmers, plus 4,000-odd weeds with genes harnessed by scientists to make the rice plant more aromatic and more resistant to pests and disease, and tolerant of drought and saltwater.
Once completed, the Norway facility will act as a further backup to a US Department of Agriculture vault in Colorado that already holds duplicates of IRRI’s seeds.
IRRI, he said, has in particular helped Cambodia’s farmers to recover from the ravages of war.
The Khmer Rouge regime killed millions of people — many through starvation — and forced farmers to grow only certain rice varieties in the 1970s.
Flora de Guzman, senior research manager of the gene bank, said she had once processed a request by Cambodia to send back seeds for about 500 of their native rice varieties.