Safeguarding rice biodiversity . . .

lao294I can’t claim it was the most successful project that IRRI – the International Rice Research Institute – ever managed. That would be too arrogant by half.

But by mid-2000 we successfully finished a project, Safeguarding and Preservation of the Biodiversity of the Rice Genepool, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), that significantly enhanced the long-term conservation of rice genetic resources.

The SDC was extremely generous, and funded much of the proposed budget, donating USD3.286 million. Approved for funding in November 1993, we didn’t actually begin any of the project activities in earnest until 1995. That was because we spent 1994 ‘selling’ the project to our colleagues in national genetic resources programs and their superiors in the target countries, holding a series of planning meetings, and forming a Steering Committee, as well as recruiting several staff.


So the effective period of the project were the five years between 1995 and 1999, with a no-cost extension taking the project past its original end date of November 1998. But, as far as the SDC was concerned, this was never a problem. We kept everyone regularly updated on progress and achievements, and in any case, the donor had insisted that time was spent at the project’s initiation bringing everyone on board. It was certainly time well spent. This was particularly so in 1993-94. Why? Well in December 1993 the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) came into force (having been opened for signature at the Rio Earth Summit in June 1992) – just a few weeks after our rice biodiversity project was given the green light. And since the collection of rice varieties and wild species was a major component of the project, we weren’t sure just how committed several countries would be to participate in the project, let alone share their germplasm with others or send a duplicate sample of all collected germplasm for long-term preservation in the International Rice Genebank at IRRI. The negotiations leading to the CBD had certainly opened many cans of worms in terms of access to and use of germplasm, and to what extent germplasm had a strictly commercial value. While so-called ‘agricultural biodiversity’ (the landrace crop varieties, among others) was not the main focus of the CBD, this international treaty did provide the legal framework for access to germplasm, during the period leading up to the CBD, there had been a drop-off in the number of germplasm collecting expeditions, particularly those that were internationally-led. And of course, this was years before the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture had been negotiated to provide the legal framework for germplasm exchange and use.

I think it says a lot for the international standing and reputation of IRRI that we encountered remarkably little opposition (especially among Asian nations) to the idea of participating in a collaborative concerted effort to collect and preserve as much rice biodiversity as possible. Essentially to try and fill the gaps in earlier germplasm collecting efforts. It seemed to us that this was the moment to seize. Civil conflicts were a thing of the past in several countries, infrastructure had improved providing access to areas and regions that had previously been inaccessible. In any case, with the rapid development that some countries were undergoing, we feared that unless something was done, then and there, there might not be an opportunity again in the foreseeable future, and valuable germplasm might be lost. The project had three components on germplasm collecting, on farm conservation, and training.

For germplasm collecting, we recruited two staff: Dr Seepana Appa Rao from India (who had spent much of his career at one of IRRI’s sister centers, ICRISAT in Hyderabad) and Dr Sigrid Liede from Germany. Existing IRRI staff Dr Bao-Rong Lu, a taxonomist from China and Ms Eves Loresto also took on important collecting and training responsibilities.

For the on farm conservation work, geneticist Dr Jean-Louis Pham from France was seconded to IRRI from his home institute IRD for five years. Two social anthropologists, Dr Mauricio Bellon from Mexico and Dr Stephen Morin from the USA worked in the project.

Within six months of the end of the project, we had submitted our final report and an interactive CD containing all the germplasm collecting and training reports, publications, and up to 1000 images (with a descriptive spreadsheet with live links to each image). Just click on the CD image below to automatically download a zip file (approximately 460 MB). Extract or copy the folders and files in the zip file to a new folder Rice Biodiversity on your computer, and click on the Start file. (There is a Read me! file in case you need more instructions.) Unfortunately it’s not possible to open the files interactively directly from the zip file here – you have to download. But that’s where you will find all the detail.


So below, I’ve included just a few highlights of what the project achieved, and its impact.

Collection and ex situ conservation of wild and cultivated rices
Germplasm collectors made one hundred and sixty-five collecting trips, lasting from just a few days to several weeks, in 22 countries between 1995 and 1999. A total of 24,718 samples of cultivated rice (Oryza sativa) was collected, and 2,416 samples of 16 wild Oryza species, weedy types and putative hybrids, and some unclassified samples; there were also samples of at least four species from three related genera.

The collecting effort in the Lao PDR was particularly impressive, with more than 13,000 samples of cultivated and wild rice now safely conserved in the local genebank and in the IRG. The collecting activities in sub-Saharan Africa focused almost entirely on wild species, and in general the number of samples collected was not high. The resource investment to collect this material was quite high but realistic given the somewhat sparse geographical distribution of the species populations, and the difficulties in collecting.

By the end of the project, more than 80% of the cultivated rice samples and 68% of the wild had been sent to the International Rice Genebank at IRRI for long-term conservation. All the details can be seen here.

On farm management of traditional rice varieties
In 1994, IRRI organized a workshop about on farm conservation of genetic resources. The participants agreed on the need to develop its scientific basis,because on farm  conservation of genetic resources was strongly advocated in international forums, but there was limited understanding of what this approach really meant. We therefore felt that more research should be conducted to understand farmers’ management of crop diversity and its genetic consequences. This was especially true in the case of rice for which very limited knowledge was available. So we set out to:

  • increase knowledge on farmers’ management of rice diversity, the factors that influence it, and its genetic implications; and
  • identify strategies to involve farmers’ managed systems in the overall conservation of rice genetic resources.

We developed research sites and teams in northern Luzon, Philippines, in central Vietnam, and in Orissa, India. And always we had that mix of geneticists and social scientists to provide a broad perspective on the dynamics of rice agriculture in terms of on farm management/conservation.

The contribution of this IRRI-coordinated project for on-farm conservation was to:

  • bring hard data and facts to the debate on the use and relevancy of on-farm conservation of rice genetic resources, and on the impact of deployment of modern varieties on biodiversity;
  • identify avenues for the implementation of on-farm conservation strategies;
  • explore the role that research institutions could play in the future;
  • develop methodologies and competencies in the assessment of rice diversity and its management by farmers through partnership with national programs;
  • increase the awareness and understanding of issues related to on-farm conservation and the value of local diversity both in NARS and local development agencies;
  • share its experience, with other researchers through the participation to various conferences and meetings, publication of papers, organization of a workshop, and collaboration with other projects.

An important ‘spin-off’ from the research concerned the restoration of germplasm in areas where varieties had been lost. During the course of the research, a major typhoon hit northern Luzon in the Philippines where we were working with farmers. During that season almost all of rice agriculture was wiped out, and many farmers no longer had access to the varieties they had previously grown, and none were available through official Department of Agriculture channels. Fate was on our side. In a previous season, project staff had samples a wide range of varieties from the farmers at the project sites, taken them to Los Baños, grown them out for morphological and genetic characterization and, in the process, multiplying the seed stocks. We were able to provide each farmer with up to 1 kg of seeds of each variety on request, and in total we sent back about 20 tonnes of seeds. Not all farmers wanted their indigenous varieties and changed over completely to modern, high-yielding varieties.

Strengthening of germplasm conservation by national agricultural research systems (NARS) and non-government organizations/ farmers’ organizations (NGOs/FOs)
Between 1995 and 1999, we ran 48 courses or on-the-job training opportunities in 14 countries and at IRRI headquarters in the Philippines. The training encompassed field collection and conservation, characterization, wild rice species, data management and documentation, genebank management, seed health, analysis of socioeconomic data, and molecular analysis of germplasm. And we trained more than 670 national program personnel. IRRI staff were involved in the management, coordination, and presentation of almost all the training activities.

However, the story doesn’t end there.


Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton

While some gaps remain for germplasm collection and duplication of germplasm at IRRI, these issues have been taken up by my successor as head of the TT Chang Genetic Resources Center, Dr Ruaraidh Sackville Hamilton. Even so, the size of the International Rice Genebank Collection (IRGC) had increased by about 25% by 2000, not bad for a period when discussions in international fora (the CBD and the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture) had put the brakes on germplasm sharing. Most of the national collections in Asia are now duplicated at IRRI, although some important Indian germplasm has never been duplicated, and I believe this remains the case still. The Africa Rice Center and IRRI have also cross-duplicated African germplasm, but I don’t have the latest information on this nor on the status with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia.

Since the biodiversity project ended, the International Treaty mentioned earlier has also come into force and rice is one of the important crops specifically covered by that treaty.

To ensure the long-term conservation of rice germplasm at IRRI, there was a significant investment during the early 1990s to refurbish and upgrade the genebank as well as enhancing the actual conservation procedures followed. In recent years another sub-zero storage vault for long-term conservation was added to the genebank.

When I joined IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center in 1991 there was already in place an agreement with the USDA-ARS National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation for the ‘black box’ safety duplication of the entire IRRI collection – and that continues today.

In February 2008 a significant dimension was added to global crop germplasm conservation efforts with the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault under the auspices of the Global Crop Diversity Trust (and the Government of Norway) – photos courtesy of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The whole IRRI collection – including those samples collected during the SDC-funded project – are now safely sitting under the permafrost in Spitsbergen, inside the Arctic Circle.

In this video, you can see genebank staff at IRRI preparing all the seed samples to send to Svalbard.

And in the next video, the late Professor Wangari Maathai (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 2004 and at that time a Board Member of the Global Crop Diversity Trust) and the Prime Minister of Norway, H.E. Mr Jens Stoltenberg carry the first box of germplasm – from IRRI no less – into the seed vault.

The work to safeguard rice biodiversity is never-ending. But a great deal has been achieved. Being part of a global network of genebanks – some in several Asian countries focusing specifically on rice  – IRRI’s contribution is extremely important.


The broad genetic diversity of rice and its wild relatives is safe for the future, and I’m very proud to have played my part in that effort.

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