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An international project to collect seeds from the wild relatives of 23 of the world's major food crops including maize, rice, wheat and potato, has received its first funding.

Last week (10 December) Norway, home to the world's largest seed bank, in Svalbard in the Arctic, pledged US$50 million towards the collection, which is expected to take ten years to complete.

Research and planning will start in 2011 and seed collection is expected to start within three years in countries that support the initiative.

Many wild plants are becoming extinct because of climate change and habitat destruction — the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates three quarters of crop biodiversity has disappeared in the last century alone.

The project will aim to conserve crops' genetic history in the hope of introducing beneficial wild traits into plant breeding programmes to help crops better withstand the impacts of climate change.

"All our crops were originally developed from wild species — that's how farming began," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, in Rome, which is leading the project. "We need to glean from them the traits that will enable modern crops to adapt to new, harsher and more demanding situations."

"Climate change is going to change the way we cultivate the Earth," said Fowler. "Collecting wild crop seeds is a step to ensuring that we can cope with what is still to come. If we are to survive we have to think like global citizens."

Norway's minister of environment and international development, Erik Solheim, said in a statement: "This project represents one of the most concrete steps taken to date to ensure that agriculture, and humanity, adapt to climate change ... the project also demonstrates the importance of biodiversity and genetic resources for human survival".

Fowler told SciDev.Net that the project would also help develop new collaborations and build expertise in developing countries.

"Some of the world's poorest nations have the richest plant resources," Fowler told SciDev.Net. "Some of the best scientists in this field will be working in developing countries and will be available to share their expertise with researchers at local institutions."

Signatories to the legally binding International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture have already committed to co-operation and to an open exchange of genetic resources.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust is now partnering with several organisations on this project including the UK's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

See below for a video of Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, talking about crop biodiversity at the TEDGlobal conference: