The Agriculture Department has agreed to conduct an environmental assessment of its entire seed bank system after being sued for alleged "gross negligence" in the loss of thousands of rare seed types every year.

"We regard this as a major victory," said Jeremy Rifkin, head of the Foundation on Economic Trends and spokesman for the several international organizations and individuals who were plaintiffs in the suit.

"It is an important precedent to bring a whole USDA program under NEPA the National Environmental Policy Act . Agriculture, as far as I know, has never acknowledged that their programs are subject to NEPA," Rifkin said.

At issue is the "germplasm" program, which collects, classifies, stores and distributes seeds, cuttings and other germinal material. Seeds from banks are used to cross-breed plants having different desirable traits. A wheat resistant to "rust" infection, for example, may be crossed with wheat that has unusually large grain size.

Experts say that much of the total commercial value of American food crops derives from such trait selection. It is deemed especially important in the United States and other Northern Hemisphere countries, which have virtually no native food crops. More than 95 percent of their diet comes from plants grown from foreign seeds or cuttings, so collection, storage and distribution of seeds is a vital commercial matter.

The Nov. 4 suit charged extreme under-funding of the germplasm program, making it impossible to collect, store, evaluate and test the department's 150,000 or so seed samples. Tens of thousands of seed varieties collected are improperly labeled and some are alleged to be improperly stored, causing a substantial number to lose potency, it was alleged.

The group also complained that the department has collected almost nothing except varieties of high commercial interest, even at a time when thousands of plants are becoming extinct annually.

Orville Bentley, assistant secretary for science and education, told the plaintiffs in a letter Monday that the department was already undergoing a thorough review of its germplasm program and would now do the environmental assessment.

William Tallent, assistant administrator of the Agricultural Research Service, which runs the germplasm program, said the review began last spring and was triggered by the department's own concern about the program's adequacy.

Under NEPA, an environmental assessment is a preliminary study of a policy to decide if it will affect the environment sufficiently to merit a full environmental impact statement, which can be expensive and time-consuming.

"This particular case is kind of unique," Tallent said, "because it's asking the question in reverse. The plaintiffs were asking what are the consequences of not doing something . . . whether we have the resources or the correct structure to save the germplasm."