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.