Author: PETER GUEST, Contributing writer
Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Philippine Statistics Authority.
LOS BANOS, Philippines -- Flora De Guzman pops the seal on a vault door, and a blast of dry, frigid air hisses through the gap. Behind the airlock is a room kept at minus 20C, packed with shelf upon shelf of sealed aluminum cans holding one of the world's most undervalued resources -- preserved samples of more than 130,000 varieties of rice.
For the past 40 years, De Guzman has worked here at the gene bank at the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos. Some of the samples have been here even longer. "We've learned the value of time," she said.
The IRRI, a couple of hours' drive south of Manila, is a uniquely comprehensive library of the genetic diversity of a crop that sustains more than 3 billion people worldwide. Seeds from different strains of rice are collected from all over the world, sorted -- in some cases by hand -- to ensure their purity, and stored in vaults, where they can survive for 50 years or more.
Researchers from the public or private sectors can request samples for a nominal fee, allowing them to crossbreed the institute's varieties with their own. But the vault's mission has taken on a new urgency in the last few years as the changing climate generates more erratic and extreme weather, leaving farmers in dire need of rice varieties that can resist droughts, floods and pests. The genes that correspond to these vital traits are contained within the samples held in the vaults.
"Climate change is the greatest threat to food security. The main problem is that the climate change is faster than plants are able to adapt," said Marie Haga, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a Germany-based nonprofit organization that works to preserve crop diversity. "In order for us to feed the world in the time ahead, we need to adapt the main plants that feed us to new circumstances," Haga said. "The diversity of crops in gene banks is the raw material we need to breed plants that can deal with an extreme climate."