Tue, Nov 01, 2005 - Page 16 News List

Seeds that can save the world

AFP , LOS BANOS, PHILIPPINES

While wheat is the primary cereal in Iraq, rice is also grown in some areas while Afghans are big rice eaters, he added.

But he says sending the rice seeds back "depends on a combination of getting the appropriate infrastructure there to make it worth doing."

"Until they get something to keep it there, there's no point in getting it there. We can get it there at any time. We'll wait for a way of doing it so that we have an impact," Macintosh adds.

Dealing with tsunamis

The gene bank also proved invaluable following the deadly Indian Ocean tsunamis that struck rice-growing areas in Asia in December last year. The giant waves dumped salt water on paddies up to several kilometers inland.

One of the first things Malaysia, Sri Lanka and India did was to contact the institute as "they needed to find rice varieties that would tolerate salty conditions," Macintosh says.

The three countries later learned that they actually have some varieties back home that grew well in salty areas, and the institute ended up sending advice instead of seeds.

Rice grows in a variety of areas, and each type has its own unique way of adapting to drought, floods, and disease as well as resistance to cold, heat, acid soils, salt soils and other conditions, Macintosh says.

"So for example a country would have a problem with drought and we would send drought-tolerant varieties to them," he says.

Sackville Hamilton said the gene bank has gained added significance after the rice genome was decoded and as biotechnology companies race to patent newly developed varieties of rice, the staple food of nearly half of humanity including many of the world's poorest.

He cited a case when India, a key contributor to the rice gene bank, requested a variety that was native to China, which is protective of its indigenous varieties. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization resolved the issue for the two countries and institute.

India obtained the sought variety from the institute free of charge after the government signed a document that prevented New Delhi from taking a patent to it.

India could then grow it commercially or use it for its own breeding programs to produce higher-yielding varieties, Sackville Hamilton says.

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