A new 'forever fund' for food security

A researcher for the International Rice Research Institute. Photo by: IRRI

BANGKOK — At the International Rice Research Institute, work is already underway to create new varieties of this staple crop that can withstand both flooding and drought. Now, the institution’s efforts to share this knowledge globally will be supported forever, thanks to a “perpetuity grant” offered by the Crop Trust.

The agreement between IRRI and the Crop Trust, which guarantees $1.4 million in funding each year in perpetuity, was signed today, on World Food Day, during the 5th International Rice Congress in Singapore.

The funding represents about 2 percent of IRRI’s $67 million annual budget, but “it’s actually more important than that,” explained Matthew Morell, IRRI's director general. “It provides us with the means of maintaining the collection, but also with that funding, we provide seeds to thousands and thousands of people who contact us and request that material, and it's all provided free of charge.”

The first phase of Crop Trust funding will cover essential operations of the IRRI genebank from 2019-2023, including conservation, regeneration, and distribution of its cultivated and wild seed collections. The institute’s high-tech facility in Los Baños, the Philippines, is the largest rice collection in the world, housing 136,000 varieties. Scientists around the world use the seeds stored there to develop improved rice varieties that can withstand impacts of climate change, and also offer farmers increased yields.

The facility also houses the ancestors and descendants of IR8, the world’s first high-yielding rice developed by IRRI researchers in the early 1960s. The rice is credited with saving many regions of Asia from famine after it was released in 1966, and Morell explained that this is just one of many reasons why it’s critical to safeguard the genebank — which preserves rice varieties that farmers have selected over hundreds of years.

“It’s like a library, you go back to where you can find rice types that were adapted to particular stressors or environmental challenges,” Morell explained. “We can take the genetics that provide that attribute to the plant, but then we can put that attribute into a much higher yielding rice.”

Five million farmers in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Laos, the Philippines, and Indonesia, for example, are already growing a new form of rice that can survive underwater — a variety that was developed at IRRI in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Most rice dies within days of submergence under water, but “scuba rice” withstands flooding for up to two weeks. Researchers are now adapting the rice for Africa, and others are looking at how to add drought resistant characteristics so farmers’ crops are better able to withstand a variety of climate stressors at once.

For the Crop Trust, this funding validates 20 years of work and 50 years of thinking on how the international community can safeguard crops used for food and agriculture, according to Marie Haga, executive director of the crop diversity nonprofit.

Already, too much material has been lost, and preserving what is left is “absolutely essential for how we are going to deal with food systems in the long run,” she said. “For every variety we lose, we lose options for the future.”

The funding for IRRI is possible through the Crop Trust’s growing endowment fund. The return on investment of the fund, which counts the United States, Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, and Australia as major contributors, is what will now go to IRRI. The agreement will continue after 2023, with a second five-year phase allowing for any revisions in the genebank’s business plan and operational costs. But it’s just a first step, according to Haga.

“Our dream is to be able to give forever grants to all the major crop collections in the world that are globally important,” Haga said.

The IRRI genebank is one of 11 genebanks of CGIAR, a global research partnership dedicated to reducing poverty and enhancing food and nutrition security. But the CGIAR banks do not hold everything, and the Crop Trust will also look to support a certain number of national collections when they have grown the endowment fund from today’s $300 million to the goal of $850 million. The nonprofit is increasingly engaging the private sector — especially those industries that rely on crop diversity such as coffee, chocolate, and beer — to contribute to the fund.

“I also hope that we can be so successful that other sectors can see that building an endowment to safeguard natural resources might be a way to go,” Haga said.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.