Investing in Seed Banks

by: Posted on: July 11, 2011

Photo: The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture: Nigeria

Editor’s Note: Written by a talented young writer, this article concerning Seed Banks and crop diversity belongs in our Flora section.

by Ariana Abbott

A recent graduate from Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, Ariana Abbott spent her four years studying food and agriculture, anthropology, and French. She has studied biodynamics at S&S Homestead on Lopez Island and its source at the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland, along with ecogastronomy and Slow Food in Bra and Pollenzo, Italy. She currently lives in Bellingham and is practicing apartment/patio gardening with her significant other and four year old ‘puppy.’


Seed banks are a controversial subject, if only for the fact that they are humanity’s insurance policy for food security. That being said, what are they really?


First off, they are almost exactly what they sound like, though a better description might be that they are gene “vaults” in a region’s Bank of Biodiversity. What that means is that a seed bank, or gene bank as they are sometimes referred to, is a physical structure or building where different countries, regions, or even cities can safely store their heirloom seeds away from pollution, contamination, cross-pollination, and other destructive forces. Consider it like a safety deposit box, where each country has a section in the vault of a global bank.


There are two main groups of seeds in the world, conventional and heirloom. Conventional seeds are usually specialized for very large farms and require the application of fertilizers and pesticides in order to be successful. Heirloom seeds, on the other hand, are significantly more rare because fewer and fewer are being put into production. There are countless varieties of heirloom seeds that generally contain more diversity within their genes. In simpler terms, these seeds were specialized to grow especially well in Grandma’s garden. These unique seeds are ‘deposited’ in the different seed banks and made available to the people that ‘deposited’ them and those they grant access to, usually for research purposes.


The reasoning behind seed banks is that, of the over 1000 types of potatoes cultivated today, there are only about four that commonly grace grocery stores’ shelves; the Russet, the Yukon, and the Red and White. What that means, is that there are a LOT of monocultures, or single crop fields, in production and very few farmers planting the less common types.  If the climate changes, or if a certain pest eradicates a certain type of potato, or any other nameless disaster occurs, then quite frankly, the farmers and corporations that stock our food outlet shelves are in a lot of trouble. In Peru where heirloom potatoes are famous, if a pest infests their fields, only a few crops will be affected and the farmer still has countless other varieties able to be harvested. With genetic diversity comes genetic resistance & resilience to pests and other disasters; the more diversity on a farm, the more safety the farmer has in overcoming anything nature throws their way.


What would happen if a potato blight, such as the Irish witnessed, occurred in modern times? Nearly everywhere but Peru, farmers would most likely apply countless different kinds fungicides as needed, but because so many of the same crop are planted in a single area it becomes easier for that same pest to mutate, adapt, and spread, possibly faster than the scientists can work to create a more powerful pesticide. The result is total destruction of a crop, no alternative to replace it, and no more, “Would you like fries with that.” If you think this is too radical to ever happen, just look at the history of the Michelle banana; everyone’s favorite fruit before it went extinct in the mid 1900s.


So, to prevent this from happening again, countries, food regions, and cities have banded together to create seed banks; storage facilities for biodiversity and the future. The purpose? Security. In case the limited numbers of species currently in production begin to fail with the ever-changing climate and radical weather, people will have a safety net. They can access these seed banks and develop new crop species by controlled breeding or genetically engineering older varieties to meet the present and future environmental conditions.


An argument against seed banks is that simply storing seeds is not enough. They must be planted, grown, and harvested in order to naturally evolve with the changing environment. Drying and freezing them handicaps their genetics from being able to survive should they be retrieved 40 or 50 years in the future. The alternative approach is to have global seed farms where countries invest in the knowledge of cultivation and use of plants. However, this method would require constant human monitoring and labor.


For smaller more locally scaled seed banks, however, this is not so great a problem. Whenever a farmer plants an heirloom seed, they are participating in a pseudo-‘seed bank.’  Small, local farms around Whatcom County boast heirloom species of both plants and animals. By farming and ranching, these special species are preserved and localized; that is, they continually evolve to meet their local environment and be successful in their climate. This method of production also opens up this biodiversity to the average citizen. Instead of governments being the only ones with access to the larger seed banks, general community members can purchase these seeds or animals either at the farm or at local markets. Purchasing these local, organic, heirloom species is also the only way to ensure that one’s seeds are not genetically modified. This supports the farmers’ efforts as well as biodiversity within one’s community.


Another way to access local biodiversity is a “Seed Swap” or exchange, such as that at the Public Market in Bellingham. This is simply a gathering of different community members with localized seeds who wish to share their efforts with others. Though, in a globalized world with literally billions of people’s lives in question, this type of exchange on the international level becomes complicated.


Because of the difficulties with a global seed swap, the world scaled up and built the largest gene bank in history, located between Norway and the North Pole. It is called Svalbard Global Seed Vault and cost $9 million funded entirely by the Norwegian government. It is a “state-of-the-art seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time – and natural or manmade disasters,” and is “considered the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply.” Set deep beneath the permafrost on the bedrock of the northernmost continent, even in the face of permanent power outages the millions of seeds will remain frozen for centuries.


The only question I am still left with is, who will be holding the key in 100 years?



International Potato Center.

Global Crop Diversity Trust: a foundation for food security.

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