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136,000 Varieties of Rice Are Now Protected in Perpetuity

An annual $1.4 million funding grant will allow the International Rice Research Institute to help develop drought, heat- and flood-resistant rice varieties

Rice terraces in Yunnan, China. (Wikimedia Commons)
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According to some estimates, half the world depends on rice as its staple food. But as the climate changes, rice cultivation is increasingly under threat by record-breaking temperatures, drought and flooding. That’s why, as Michael Taylor at Reuters reports, a group called the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has collected and conserved 136,000 varieties of rice and recently received a commitment of $1.4 million in annual funding to maintain the collection.

Keeping an inventory of all those rice varieties isn’t just an academic exercise. While gene editing and synthetic biology get a lot of attention for their potential to develop more nutritious and resilient crops, the IRRI says the traits needed to survive a changing climate are already present in the seed bank. “It is really important to the future of food security,” Matthew Morell, IRRI’s director general tells Reuters. “Within those rice varieties are genetics that will allow us to preserve the ability to produce rice in the face of climate change.”

The new funding comes from an endowment fund set up by an organization called The Crop Trust, which was established in 2004 to provide ongoing support to the 11 genebanks of CGIAR, an international organization dedicated to food security and poverty reduction, which preserves 1 million varieties of food crops. “Today’s announcement validates 20 years of work and 50 years of thinking on how the international community can safeguard crops used for food and agriculture,” Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, says in a press release.

Researchers have already used rice held at the genebank to develop specialized varieties of the grain. One new variety, dubbed “scuba rice,” has food scientists particularly excited. Currently, about 49 million acres of rice fields in Asia are susceptible to flooding. If rice is flooded at the wrong time of year, however, it will not survive more than a few days. The new variety can withstand floodwaters for two weeks and is already being grown by 5 million farmers in Asia. A variety suited for Africa is currently under development.

Taylor at Reuters reports that researchers are also investigating the rice genebank to find varieties that can withstand salt water. “In Asia we have areas which grow rice along coastal zones, where typhoons bring sea water into the rice fields,” Morell says. “So those genetics for salinity resistance is important.”

Helen Briggs at the BBC reports that rice seeds can last for hundreds of years in storage, as long as they are properly packaged and stored at low temperatures. But maintaining those conditions takes resources and money. The funding for IRRI will begin will allow the seed bank to cover operating expenses and regenerate some of the rice varieties held in its collection as well as develop robotic techniques to manage and sort their huge collection.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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