Seed bank for the world threatened by financial crisis

ARDINGLY, England (Reuters) - A seed bank that is trying to collect every type of plant in the world is now under threat from the global financial crisis, its director says.

Michael Way, a researcher from the Millennium Seed Bank Project is seen collecting seeds in Chile, in this undated handout photograph released in London January 29, 2009. REUTERS/RBG Kew/Handout

The Millennium Seed Bank Project aims to house all the 300,000 different plant species known to exist to ensure future biodiversity and protect a vital source of food and medicines, director Paul Smith said.

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

About half the funding comes from the National Lottery and the rest from corporate donations.

But with businesses tightening their belts in the economic downturn and preparation for the 2012 London Olympics sapping lottery money, the pot is about to run dry.

Smith hopes government money and international groups will come through with the nearly 10 million pounds per year needed to keep the bank going. But if that does not happen, new collections and research will stop, he said.

“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 told Reuters Television during a tour of the facility south of London.

Each seed costs about 2,000 pounds to collect and store.

The Millennium Seed Bank Project is the only project of its kind in the world which aims to collect and conserve all the planet’s wild plant diversity, Smith said.

Human activities, such as clearing forests, have put flora and fauna at risk. Because most of the world’s food and medicines come from nature, protecting plant species is critical, scientists say.

For example, it was only 30 years ago 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.

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, he said.

Managing the deposits involves far more than simply filing them away for safekeeping. Seeds from across the globe arrive at the bank in packets of all sizes, where they are catalogued, tested and experimented on.

They are separated from husks, cleaned and dried again before final storage in an underground vault at minus 20 degrees Celsius, where they can last for up to thousands of years. The vaults are designed to withstand a nuclear accident.

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, Smith said.

Writing and additional reporting by Michael Kahn, Editing by Maggie Fox and Angus MacSwan