October 15, 2009 / 6:20 AM / 8 years ago

Britain's wild seed bank hits 10 percent target

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britain's seed bank, the only one in the world aiming to collect all of the planet's wild plant species, has reached its goal of banking 10 percent by 2010.

The Millennium Seed Bank Project, run by Kew Gardens -- one of the oldest botanical gardens -- will officially deposit the 24,200th species on Thursday, a pink, wild banana from China.

"We've brought it in under budget and on time," Director Paul Smith told Reuters.

"At times during the past nine years it looked like we wouldn't be able to do that, but actually the momentum we've got now is tremendous," he said.

More than 50 countries are now on board with Kew's mammoth task but vast swathes of the globe, including India and Brazil, still need to join in and donate seeds, Smith said.

"Ten percent is just the beginning. We have room here to store approximately two-thirds of the world's plant species so we need to get on with it. Species will become extinct if we don't get some of them," Smith said.

The wild banana seed, or musa itinerans, is under threat of extinction in southwest China from agricultural development. It is a vital food source for Asian elephants and important for growing bananas for human consumption.

The banking ceremony at the facility in Ardingly, 35 miles south of London, will see the musa itinerans seeds join more than a billion others held in the cavernous vaults built to withstand a nuclear explosion.

Stored at minus-20 degrees centigrade, so they can last for thousands of years, the seeds await the day scientists hope never comes -- when the species no longer exist in the wild.

It is a race against time, Smith said, because in the last decade alone, 20 plants held in the bank have already been wiped out in the wild. He estimates that between a third and a quarter will become extinct this century.

"It is urgent and it is happening now. The amount of land conversion people are undertaking is unprecedented, it's phenomenal. If you go to places like India and China you realize we are in a mass extinction," Smith said.

An area the size of England is cleared of primary vegetation every year, he added.

Because most of the world's food and medicines come from nature, protecting wild plant species is critical, scientists say.

There are already many other seed banks safeguarding food crops, which only account for 0.6 percent of plant diversity.

For Kew's next goal -- to collect a quarter of wild varieties by 2020 -- the botanists need 10 million pounds ($16 million) a year, or a further 100 million pounds on top of the 40 million they have already been granted.

Editing by Steve Addison

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