January 29, 2009

Seed Bank Funding Threatened By Financial Crisis

The doom of the global financial crisis is now threatening an important seed bank attempting to collect every type of plant in the world, Reuter's reported on Thursday.

Director Paul Smith of the Millennium Seed Bank Project said their aim is to archive 300,000 different plant species known to exist in order to ensure future biodiversity and protect a vital source of food and medicines.

He said the project is on track to collect 10 percent of the total by 2010, but the financial crisis is drying up funding and casting serious doubts on future collections.

The National Lottery funds about half of the project, with the rest coming from corporate donations.

But now with the economic downturn and preparation for the 2012 London Olympics using up lottery money, the funds for the project are looking grim.

Government money and international groups will likely have to step up to fit the nearly $14 million per year needed to keep the bank going. But Smith said if that doesn't happen, new collections and research would be forced to stop.

"We would say that this is an exceptional bank and that the assets within it, the capital that we have built up, is unique and we can't squander this," Smith said, during a tour of the facility south of London.

It costs around 2,000 pounds ($2863) to collect and store each type of seed.

Smith said the Millennium Seed Bank Project is the only project of its kind in the world that's attempting to collect and conserve all the planet's wild plant diversity.

Flora and fauna have been endangered by human activities like forest clearing. Scientists agree that since most of the world's food and medicines come from nature, protecting plant species is critical to human survival.

It was merely 30 years ago, for instance, that Catharanthus roseus, a small pink plant also known as the Madagascan periwinkle, was found to contain compounds used in cancer drugs.

"Thirteen million hectares of forest are cleared every year -- that's an area the size of England -- and of course the plant species which occur there are going the same way," Smith said.

So far, he added, there are 1,400 other seed banks in the world that store about 0.6 percent of the world's plant diversity. The Millennium Project run by Kew Gardens -- one of the world's oldest botanical gardens -- aims to collect the rest.

At the Millennium Seed Bank Project, seeds from across the globe arrive at the bank in packets of all sizes, where they are catalogued, tested and experimented on.

The specimens are then separated from husks, cleaned and dried again before final storage in a temperature-controlled underground vault, where they can last for up to thousands of years. The vaults are even designed to withstand a nuclear accident.

Smith warned that a third of the planet's plants are categorized as threatened with extinction, which could have dramatic effects on human life, trade and the environment.


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