a1 School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK
a2 International Rice Research Institute, DAPO Box 7777, Metro Manila, Philippines
a3 University of California, 39399 Blackhawk Place, Davis, CA 95616-7008, USA
Changes in global biodiversity at the genetic level have proved difficult to determine for most organisms because of lack of standardized, repeated or historical data; this hampers the attempts to meet the convention on biological diversity (CBD) 2010 targets of reducing loss of genetic diversity, particularly of crop species. For rice, where germplasm and genetic data have been collected throughout South and Southeast Asia over many decades, contrary to popular opinion, we have been unable to detect a significant reduction of available genetic diversity in our study material. This absence of a decline may be viewed positively; over the 33-year timescale of our study, genetic diversity amongst landraces grown in traditional agricultural systems was still sufficiently abundant to be collected for ex situ conservation. However, if significant genetic erosion does take place in the future as a result of accelerating global warming and/or major changes in land use or agricultural practices, will it be catastrophic or gradual, and how will it be detected? We have shown a strong link between numbers of landraces collected (and therefore extant) and genetic diversity; hence, we have a clear indicator to detect loss of genetic diversity in the future. Our findings lend considerable support for ex situ conservation of germplasm; the more than substantial genetic resources already in genebanks are now safe. On the other hand, it is the germplasm growing in farmers' fields, continually adapting genetically to changing environmental conditions and evolving novel genetic forms, whose future has been much less certain but can now be effectively monitored using our criteria.
(Received August 14 2008)
(Accepted October 19 2008)
(Online publication November 25 2008)