Seed Banking for Survival—Saving the World, One Seed at a Time
Wheat is one of 15 plant species that comprise 90 percent of all food crops. The need for greater biodiversity drives the seed-banking movement. (Photo courtesy of Scott Bauer.)
In a 2000 animated science-fiction movie called Titan A.E., a lost spaceship called the Titan holds the key to humanity's survival after catastrophe—our planet and all its life has been destroyed (A.E. stands for “after earth”). The Titan is a drifting repository for all the plant and animal species on Earth, stored there against the need to one day seed a new planet. The ship is in effect the mother of all gene banks.
This concept is not merely a fictional conceit. Seed banks, also known as seed archives, germplasm banks, and seed vaults, are gene banks for plants, and there are approximately 1,400 of them around the world. The projects range from small, geographically specific ones that support horticultural research and local restoration to larger, overarching projects that seek, like the fictional Titan repository, to provide the means to sustain life in the face of mass ecological catastrophe.
When the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food opened the Svalbard Global Seed Vault this past February, the facility captured the public's attention as no seed bank before it had. Sited on a remote island just 600 miles from the North Pole, Svalbard's surface structure juts up from the frozen landscape like a sci-fi space ark. A 410-foot tunnel within leads to three metal doors, each opening into vaults hewn from the permafrost deep underground. Here, in rooms that retain their rough permafrost walls and ceiling, warmly attired lab technicians place silvery foil packets of seeds into numbered, labeled boxes. The boxes are sealed and then stored on high metal shelves at minus four degrees Fahrenheit.
The architecturally impressive repository represents the vision of some very dedicated people. At the forefront is the scientist Carey Fowler, a native of Tennessee and the executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Fowler's career in conservation and the promotion of crop biodiversity spans 30 years, several books, and more than 75 articles. Fowler and others had to work against myriad challenges—the fear of “biopiracy,” issues of ownership and trade, international policy, funding, and more—to create the world's most comprehensive gene bank.
With a life span expected by Fowler to rival that of the pyramids, the Svalbard vault, ideally, will serve as a backup for all the other seed banks in the world; the seeds in Svalbard duplicate the holdings of the collections that send them. As an answer to the issues of ownership and fears of biopiracy, all of the Svalbard holdings remain the property of the original depositors. Stored in this remote, desolate location, protected against nuclear blast, natural catastrophe, and to a large extent, equipment failure and climate change, the duplicate seeds will survive conditions that might destroy the original collections.
Genetic Insurance Policies
One of the first ex situ seed banks—that is, a facility for conserving seeds separately from where they grow—was set up by Russian geneticist and botanist Nikolai Vavilov in Leningrad and exists today as the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry (VIR), the only research institution in Russia whose activities include the collection and conservation of plant genetic material. Between 1916 and 1933, Vavilov and his helpers undertook impressive expeditions, collecting more than 250,000 plant samples from around the world. Today, with outposts from Astrakhan to Zeya, the VIR encompasses 320,000 holdings of grain crops, legumes, groat crops, industrial crops, fodder crops, potatoes, vegetables, and herbs.
The agenda of the seed bank as an insurance policy against ecological disaster has gained urgency in the last few decades. Scientists and growers have been among the first to recognize the degradation of habitat and species loss associated with both natural catastrophe and humanity's overuse of resources. It is estimated that approximately 10 percent of seed-bearing species are currently being banked, and exchange and research projects are targeting ways to help stave off species loss.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) runs the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), which links together an array of seed-banking projects, such as the North American Plants Collections Consortium, a program of the American Public Garden Association, and the Center for Plant Conservation, which focuses on the preservation of rare plants native to the U.S. The NPGS holds approximately 480,000 accessions comprising 12,000 plant species. The USDA has been sending scientist “plant explorers” all over the planet to collect seeds since the late 1880s.
Staff check seed accession numbers at a Nigerian gene bank. (Photo courtesy of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.)
It's no accident that most of the largest seed banks are operated by governmental agencies. Seed banking can be an expensive practice, and the most far-reaching programs are those fueled by economic incentives.
Booming population growth and the attendant need for stable food crops ramps up the homogeneity of plant life. The health and vigor of a plant strain, however—whether food crop, forage, or rare species—depends on diversity. But industrial agriculture, which focuses on the mass production of a single crop variety, drastically reduces genetic diversity within the plant population. While around 7,000 different plant species have been raised as food crops since the beginning of human agriculture, according to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, a mere 15 plant species now make up about 90 percent of all human food crops. Chief among these are rice, wheat, and maize, which account for two-thirds of that 90 percent.
Bred for uniform traits, agricultural monocultures become vulnerable to disease and pests. Examples include the 1970 loss of $1 billion worth of crops in the U.S. when disease killed uniform corn varieties, and the massive outbreaks of citrus canker in Florida in 1984 and Brazil in 1991, both exacerbated by the loss of traditional varieties and, thereby, genetic diversity.
Seed banks keep diversity alive in the face of intensive agriculture and genetically modified seeds. They also provide source material for plant breeders and researchers in search of genetic traits for new crop varieties—qualities such as enhanced nutritional value, higher yields, resistance to pests and diseases, and the capacity to weather climate change with its predicted intensification of both floods and drought.
Plant breeders use seed-bank stores to find cultivars that can resist things like black Sigatoka fungus, which devastated banana production in East Africa. One seed bank, the International Rice Research Institute, was able to supply the farmers of tsunami-devastated Asia with rice varieties that would grow in fields that had been inundated with saltwater.
Like natural disasters, war can quickly decimate regional agricultural systems, and stock from seed banks can be crucial to restoring crop plants. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, located in Aleppo, Syria, holds varieties native to Afghanistan and Iraq among the 135,000 food and forage seeds in its collection. The collection has been an important source of seeds to help revitalize crop diversity damaged by war.
Banking for Biodiversity
Plants in the wild, prey to massive habitat loss, are also disappearing. Thousands of plant varieties, noncommercial crops and wild plants alike, have gone extinct. Since 1900, among agricultural crops alone, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 75 percent of the world's genetic diversity has been eliminated.
The Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, focuses on the conservation of wild plant species. Along with its global partners, MSBP is working toward securing 25 percent of the world's plant species in safe storage by 2020. Their current project, which runs until 2010, includes the collection of seeds, specimens, and data from 24,200 wild species worldwide, preserving them both in their countries of origin and at the Millennium Seed Bank and making them available for research use and conservation in the wild.
Among the MSBP's many wild species success stories are marsh pagoda (Mimetes hirtus), a flowering shrub found in limited regions of Africa and classified as vulnerable, and cabbage tree (Dendroseris litoralis), one of the most endangered plant species on the planet. A cabbage tree specimen flowered at the MSBP in 2004, an important milestone in bringing the plant back from the brink of extinction.
There are also many regional and community seed banks and networks that operate either in partnership with or independently of larger projects like MSBP. Organizations such as the Kusa Seed Society bank seed for the restoration of native species and the preservation of local diversity. Some, like the Seed Savers network of Australia, actively resist the dominance of the larger seed bank projects, seeing them as exclusively serving the concerns of big agriculture to the detriment of the most traditional method of preserving crop diversity—farm and community seed swapping and storing, practices that they argue have been carried on for over 10,000 years.
Closer to home, many botanic gardens do the work of seed banking for regional plant conservation, and independent efforts like the Experimental Station seed archive project in Chicago collect and lend seeds for plants used for food, medicines, and building materials.
Doomsday Is Every Day
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault entrance. (Photo by Mari Tefre, courtesy of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.)
Seed banks like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault may seem less grand than Titan A.E.'s world-seeding spaceship, but they are just as impressive. In the face of war, natural catastrophe, habitat loss, climate change, and the impacts of industrial agriculture, seed banking is an essential tool not just for conservation but for survival.
According to Carey Fowler, “If we had built this vault a decade ago, we would have used it ten times already.” As backup for seed banks the world over, Svalbard stores are ready when anything from equipment failure to flooding causes a loss at the seed banks that originally placed collections with the Global Seed Vault. “Doomsday,” Fowler warns, “is every day.”