Seed banks: the ultimate seed savers

by Caroline Brown

In case of a global catastrophe, what happens to our plants? What would happen if a plant species was wiped out due to global warming, epidemics, species extinction, or a weather disaster? What if genetically modified seeds contaminate the last strain of  an important heirloom crop? Some smart scientists figured out a long time ago that seed banks might save us from ourselves. Like fallout shelters for plant DNA, seed banks are doomsday vaults that protect seeds against natural and human-caused disasters.

Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois Extension Urban Programs Resource Center.

Seed banks store duplicates of seeds from seed collections from around the world, allowing protected species to be reestablished using the stored seeds. Seeds saved may be of historical interest or economic importance (such as food crops), or they may be conserved to protect plant biodiversity.

Nikolai Vavilov started one of the world’s first seed banks in Leningrad during the 1920s. He organized a series of global expeditions, collecting seeds from all over the world to create the world’s largest plant seed collection. In WWII, when the 28-month long Blockade of Leningrad resulted in a dramatic reduction of the city’s food supply and the starving of city’s population, Vavilov’s staff faithfully guarded the edible seeds–one of them starved to death in the process.

Shown at right is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a new seed bank located on the Svalbard archipelago in Norway. A partnership between the Norwegian government, the Norway Gene Trust, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Svalbard vault is built into an Arctic mountainside. The temperature will be maintained at -18 Celsius (about 0 Fahrenheit) once the facility opens in February 2008.

Photo courtesy of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

There are already about 1,400 seed banks in the world–nearly every country has one. Seed banks are not always indestructible–Iraq and Afghanistan seed banks have been destroyed in the wars, and the Phillipines’ seed bank was destroyed last year in a typhoon. The facility in Svalbard is intended to be a backup vault for all countries.

To store seeds, they must be dried to have a moisture content of no more than six percent and stored at -18 Celsius or lower. Some seeds are called orthodox seeds, which means they become naturally dormant in cold, dry environments. They can remain viable for decades. Recalcitrant seeds, on the other hand, can’t be stored at low temperatures without being damaged, so they can’t be stored in seed banks. Even the viability and DNA of orthodox seeds degrades over time, so they need to be taken out of storage and exchanged before on a regular basis.

I’m glad scientists invented seed banks, but let’s hope we never have to use them.

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3 Comments to “Seed banks: the ultimate seed savers”

  1. Wow, another very frightening consequence to ponder as global warming gets worse.

    This was so interesting C.

    Encouraging that some backup plans ARE in place. Not the solution but perhaps, will help to mitigate some of long-term effects of climate change.

  2. Thanks for the post Caroline – I often find myself wondering how many folks out there have their own private seedbanks from their own little gardens. 😉

    By the by, my friend Jenny recently posted a few places that we can get free seeds: Swooning for Swapping… if you’re looking for seeds for your garden, you might enjoy her links!

  3. Very interesting Caroline. I wrote about heritage seeds and seed banks on a local level (here in Alberta) over a year ago. I didn’t expand upon my research to discover this very interesting world wide concept. The seeds I wrote about ranged from grains, flowers, vegetables and so on. The connection with the global warming or genetically modified seeds is an important one to bear in mind. Great information and post.

    Diane, Sand to Glass
    & Dogs Naturally

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