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An agreement between a crop trust fund and the International Rice Research Institute announced today (12 March) could safeguard the biodiversity of rice.

Under the agreement, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) will invest US$400,000 annually in its Genetic Resources Center in the Philippines, while the Global Crop Diversity Trust will donate US$200,000. The pledges allow for interest rate fluctuations and will remain in force 'indefinitely'.

The Genetic Resources Center already houses more than 100,000 samples of rice from 110 countries ― representing about 60 per cent of the world's varieties. The agreement will ensure that long-term storage systems are maintained and new technology is developed.

"Genetic resources such as these are the key to addressing many global problems," Robert Ziegler, director-general of IRRI, told SciDev.Net.

"They give us the tools to store and develop 'climate-ready' varieties of rice, which will be of great use when environments, particularly in the developing world, are affected by climate change."

The IRRI resource already helps many communities to avert food shortages. After the 2004 Asian tsunami, IRRI provided farmers whose land had been submerged by seawater with a variety of rice capable of growing in salty soil.

"Developing country plant breeders and scientists are by far the largest users of the IRRI collection," says Cary Fowler, executive secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. "For the first time, the conservation and future availability of a major crop collection has been secured forever."

Mike Gale of the UK-based John Innes Centre says similar agreements should be arranged for other crops. "We must establish a global system of gene banks covering the key accessions of all crop species and ensure their future too," he said.

Calestous Juma, former executive secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, welcomed the agreement but warned it "should not be used to cultivate complacency about supporting and expanding gene banks".

The IRRI rice bank will also contribute to a Norwegian government initiative, which aims to secure the biodiversity of the world's major food crops by preserving different varieties of seeds.

The IRRI collection will be duplicated and transferred to the Svalbard International Seed Vault, a gene bank in the Arctic that will hold the seeds of every known crop variety.