"Gene banks" seen vital for future food, health
Author: David Brough
Plant varieties are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate, with eight percent of plant species running the risk of extinction in the next 25 years, increasing pressure on the international community to preserve the remaining plant genetic resources, geneticists say.
Over the past 50 years new high-yielding uniform varieties of crops have taken the place of thousands of local varieties across large productive areas.
"There is enormous wealth in the existing gene banks," Ismail Serageldin, an agricultural scientist and director-general of Alexandria's new Library, a state-of-the-art research complex, told a biotechnology conference.
"We need to protect them for future generations," Serageldin, a former Vice-President of the World Bank and author of a book on biotechnology, said in a keynote speech.
Serageldin is a trustee of the Global Conservation Trust, a body backed by the Rome-based United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), which aims to conserve international and national collections of seeds and other plant genetic resources, so-called "gene banks".
The Trust is appealing for $260 million from donors for a fund to help conserve and use plant genetic resources around the world.
"Conserving genetic resources is a challenge for all humanity," Serageldin said.
"Without genetic resources from plants, we lose one of our greatest tools to alleviate poverty, provide food security, fight disease and protect the environment," he added.
Some 800 million people go to bed hungry, according to the United Nations.
Scientists are manipulating crops with genes to make them fitter plants, fine-tuned to their environment, resistant to drought, salt, viruses and insects.
They are also using gene technology to develop medicinal drugs to treat an array of diseases from hepatitis to diabetes.
But the new life sciences are triggering strong protests from consumer and environmentalist groups in Europe and elsewhere, who say that more research is needed into the health and environmental impact of gene-spliced products before marketing them.
In Europe, environmental activists have torn up crops and disrupted cargoes of genetically modified grains and oilseeds shipped from the United States, which staunchly backs the new technologies.
Serageldin said that plant genetic diversity had shrunk rapidly as farmers demanded more productive crops.
According to FAO, over time some 10,000 plant species have been used for human food and agriculture, but now no more than 120 cultivated species provide 90 percent of human food supplied by plants.
The conference, entitled "Biotechnology and sustainable development: Voices of the South and North", ended yesterday.