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An international fund to help preserve agricultural biodiversity was launched yesterday (21 October).

The Global Crop Diversity Trust, currently worth more that US$50 million, with an additional $60 million of raised funds in negotiation, will provide funding for national and international crop collections around the world.

"The majority of the world's crop collections are operating on extremely tight budgets," says Geoff Hawtin, executive secretary for the trust, which was set up following a campaign by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the 15 Future Harvest Centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Working in a gene bank

"Many developing countries find it difficult to keep the electricity running, let alone support the activities needed to ensure the safe long-term conservation of the crop diversity they hold. Yet this diversity is critical in the fight against hunger."

Crop collections hold samples of a variety of crops, mostly as frozen seeds. By the 1980s, there were 1,500 such collections housing some six million samples of different crops.

During the 1980s and 1990s, however, countries found themselves increasingly unable to maintain their seed banks. Closing them down would represent a great loss of biodiversity, as much of the material they hold only exists in the collections.

"The seeds in the collections contain genes of value to all of mankind and not just to the countries that store them," says Jeffrey Waage, of the Department of Agricultural Sciences at Imperial College, UK.

Waage led a study that found that a large number of the world's crop collections were at risk of being lost due insufficient funding. The report, published in 2002, helped create the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Though the crop collections are not necessarily very expensive to run, they need to be run without interruption. Shutting down the power for a year due to lack of funding can mean losing the collection.

According to Waage, important collections in Africa have been lost because their governments could not pay the costs of refrigeration.

Different varieties of maize may
be particularly high in
protein or good for making
tortillas, grits or flour

Hawtin estimates that more than 90 per cent of the use of crop collections is by researchers studying new varieties, such as crops that are resistant to drought, or high levels of salt in the soil.

The banks can also be of value to farmers interested in plants grown in areas with similar agricultural conditions to their own. Equally, they are useful for restoring agriculture to areas devastated by natural disasters, or years of war.

Hawtin believes that in part, gene banks have not received the support they need because they have failed to develop sufficient links with farmers and with plant breeders.

"They tended to become collections in their own right rather than a resource that is being actively promoted for use," he told SciDev.Net.

"One of the conditions of our funding will be that the gene bank needs to demonstrate that it has got the links to plant breeders and farmers. If it has not, we will help them develop them."

The trust has chosen five national and international collections that it has approved in principle to receive funding and the first recipients will be announced later this year. Thirty countries will benefit from the funding that the first five collections will receive.

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