Seeds, Anyone? A Look at Seed Banks

How homesteaders are on the front lines of the movement to collect seeds around the world

Seeds, Anyone? A Look at Seed Banks

Reading Time: 10 minutes


By Anita B. Stone When I had the pleasure to attend “The Value of Seed Banks” seminar held at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, North Carolina, recently, I listened to famed biology professor Dr. Janice Swab, who has traveled the world researching this project.

“Seeds are humans’ most precious plant resources,” she began. “We collect them, exchange them, buy and sell them and take them for granted.” She paused. “So, what are we doing to ensure that the most useful seeds will be available if crops fail, environmental catastrophes occur, or for other reasons, we are unable to harvest necessary seeds?”

Botanists have been addressing these possibilities for some time by keeping seeds in conditions that will allow them to retain viability. And scientists think we have a solution—seed banks.

A seed bank is a depository, a storage place, a facility built to store seeds and keep them safe for an unseen emergency, sort of like a bank vault. After you make a deposit, the seeds stay and accumulate like a savings account. Often referred to as a “seed vault,” thousands of seeds are kept under certain atmospheric conditions, including proper temperature and humidity. When stored properly, seeds remain viable for decades, even centuries, and are studied for their DNA. Prior to being categorized, they are dried.

Because plants are our lifeline and help our ecosystem function, they also provide us with oxygen to breath, medicine, clothing, fiber and food; hence, we are dependent on seeds. Basically only 30 crops comprise the world’s diet—wheat, corn and rice alone account for more than half of our food consumption. And we thank our farming communities who supply us with those needs.

Yet, our wheat seed supply is becoming scarce, from India to Africa to the southeastern United States. It’s even played a part in the war in Syria, as ISIS is hoarding wheat seeds from civilians.

The introduction of seed banks began as far back as 8,000 B.C. in the mountains of Mesopotamia, now present-day Iraq. Farmers realized their seeds required protection in order to ensure each year’s harvest.

“So seed harvesting became a major ritual in ancient farming communities,” Swab interjected. “The most essential reason is crop diversity, which must be preserved—not because we need 100 varieties of a crop, but because we don’t want to lose any plants that may prove valuable in the future.”

Can any of us imagine life without seeds? It would be unfathomable to think of the future without biodiversity. Yet, we take so much of it for granted. Unknown to many and despite aggressors who try their best to annihilate future crops, there is a global directory of plants that stands in place. So how do we save and preserve seeds for future generations?

Selecting Seeds for Storage

What seeds are stored in seed banks? As we know, a seed is an embryo with its stored food. There are two types of seeds, gymnosperms and angiosperms. Gymnosperms are the naked seed and angiosperm masks itself with a covering.

Local seed banks focus on the storage of specialty vegetables or indigenous wildflowers. Other banks have a wide global focus. For example, the Global Crop Diversity Trust concentrates on priority crops to be the top-notch globally beneficial ones. Crops including apple, banana, barley, bean, carrots, oats, wheat and rice in order to conserve crop diversity worldwide.

Currently, more than 40 governments within an established global systems provide farmers with access to plant genetic materials, such as seeds.

A common story is told about Nikolay Vavilov, considered to be the “father of modern seed banks,” who tried to end famine, but died of starvation. He collected seeds, tubers and fruits from around the world. The plant biologist and breeder made one of the first major breakthroughs putting forward the “Law of Homologeous Series in Hereditary Variation,” which among other things, predicted the likelihood of discovering new plant varieties.

“He helped transform academics of botany and was one of the first scientists to listen to farmers, including traditional and peasant farmers and why they felt seed diversity was important in their fields,” says author Gary Paul Nabham, who recently wrote a biography on Vavilov, the seed collector. Vavilov amassed a collection of some 220,000 seeds, which spurred eight centers of crop origin. His work is preserved at the Vavilov Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, the oldest seed bank in the world and one that holds a collection of more than 325,000 seed samples. His commitment and dedication to seeds is unparalleled, and proves his care for the future of agriculture. During his lifetime, he realized the necessity to save seeds, but because of Stalin’s collectivization of private farms and turning them into assembly lines, no farmer owned his land or controlled his crops. Stalin used Vavilov as a scapegoat, blaming famine and failure of his collectivities of farms, throwing him into prison. After more than 18 months eating frozen cabbage and moldy flour, the agriculturalist who tried for more than 50 years to end famine died of starvation.

If Vavilov were alive today, he would be proud that his efforts led to the creation of global seed banks. Over the years, the world’s seed banks coordinated a National Seed Treaty signed by 135 counties. Today there are 1,750 seed banks and approximately 100,000 plant varieties that are on the global endangered species list.

Yet, problems exist due to exploitation of ecosystems, habitat loss, weather conditions and a lack of public awareness. Exchanges between farmers, homesteaders, gardeners and agriculturalists play a major role in preserving crop varieties.

During the time of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, The U.S. Department of Agriculture opened a national seed bank (and you can actually contact them and order seeds if you can convince them you’re a “researcher”). There are an estimated two billion seeds in the collection, all managed with proper temperatures and humidity.

These seed vaults can be eradicated by way of weather events, exploitation of ecosystems, habitat loss and lack of concern for plant biodiversity. In order to preserve ancient, heirloom and major food crops, we should be aware that saving seeds not only helps us grow crops in different areas, but that aids in our overall conservation. Reportedly, there are more than 1,000 seed banks around the world.

Currently 15 seed-saving projects are working to preserve global agricultural biodiversity, including the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN).

One of the reasons there are so many organizations saving seeds is because managing seeds from every country in the world becomes overwhelming. Diversity cannot be properly managed unless seeds and plants are collected from different regions. Even poisonous plants are collected. The invasives, such as kudzu, are also banked because there is always the possibility of undiscovered uses for any plant. Scientists are exploring the use of kudzu as a biofuel. And, yes, there are marijuana seed banks included in this mix, for countries where growing marijuana is legal.

What is the procedure for storing seeds?

First, scientists and researchers decide what seeds to collect, mainly threatened plant seeds. Once located, seed collection begins. Seeds are manually collected with tweezers, pole cutters, nets or buckets. Details are recorded including location, description, habitat and soil type. Collectors then assign each sample a number to call their own. Each sample is cleaned by shaking them through a sieve or with a machine that blows air on them to remove the debris.

To reduce the moisture content of the seeds, they are then dried in a temperature and humidity controlled room. Once completed, they are placed in sealed airtight containers. Some use aluminum bags to protect the seeds inside.

Finally, the seeds are frozen at -4°F.

Sometimes plants don’t produce seeds, such as the banana. In that case in-vitro storage is used where that living plant tissue is stored. The tissue is then placed in liquid nitrogen, around -320°F to ensure long-term storage.

If there is ever a doubt about whether a seed will die, the scientist will remove seeds from storage and plant them to harvest, and then re-bank fresh seeds.

A multitude of diverse seed bank facilities are known worldwide, each bank focusing on specific crops, determined to be the most beneficial to their purpose. For example, The World Vegetable Center (AVRDC) works to alleviate poverty and improving nutrition through research and aims to improve poor rural and urban households by cultivating efficient vegetable varieties.

The Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) has been spearheading work on the Rights of Future Generations for the past 10 years. Their dedication is to find legal channels to provide the framework for preserving biodiversity for the future. Food Tank also collaborates with SEHN by recognizing the most important seed-saving projects that are going on to help preserve global agricultural biodiversity.

One of the largest conservation projects, spearheaded by The Royal Botanical Gardens, is The Millennium Seed Bank. They maintain they have 24,000 global species of plants stored with several thousand samples of England’s entire native population. The Bank Partnership has saved 10 percent of the world’s wild plant species at their Wakehurst, England, location. The goal is to obtain and house 25 percent of the world’s bankable plants by 2020 and to increase global diversity. Researchers are testing old plants for medicinal and assessing horticultural values.

The NSW Seedbank was organized in 1986 to collect seeds for the Australian Botanic Garden in Mount Annan. During the past 30 years, the bank has grown to save and preserve Australian native and threatened plant species. After a major upgrade and creating a partnership with The Millennium Seed Bank in 2003, the NSW bank launched a range of horticultural research projects in their on-site lab. NSW now documents 600 threatened plant species and 81 threatened ecological communities.

From the Louisiana Native Plant Initiative, the home to endangered species, to The International Center for Tropical Agriculture where regional offices in Kenya, Vietnam, Honduras and Nicaragua, aim to “reduce hunger and poverty, and improve human health in the tropics by increasing the eco-efficiency of agriculture and crop research.”

Hawaii Public Seed Initiative created by The Kohala Center and funded by the Ceres Trust, assists Hawaiian farmers by holding workshops to educate them about storing and improving their seed varies. The group also organizes seed exchange events, bringing farmers together to trade varieties from different parts of Hawaii. The goal is to build knowledge of seeds through improved communication and information and to preserve the diversity of home gardens.

Native Seed is an organization dedicated to seed conservation in the Southwest United States and Northwest Mexico. Based in Tucson, Arizona, the nonprofit has a state-of-the-art conservation facility where 2,000 varieties of arid-land-adapted seeds and a reputation as a leader in heirloom conservation. Their unique bank currently houses varieties of traditional crops including corn, beans and squash, the “Three Sisters,” as they were called, once used by the Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, Maricopa, Mayo and other tribes. The aim is to maintain genetic purity of these traditional crops.

No initiative is too small to be an integral part of seed banks. The Living Seed Bank houses more than 250 species of fruit trees, protects endangered species and provides an open door for research into agro-forestry systems.

Seeds of Success work largely with the North Carolina Botanical Garden as part of their effort to restore after natural disasters. When Hurricane Sandy hit the eastern seaboard, a Supplemental Mitigation Fund was organized for restoring ecosystems from Maine to North Carolina.

Navdanya is a research bank founded by Candana Shiva, a world-renowned scientist and environmentalist. The name “Navdanya” means “nine seeds” in Hindi, and saves endangered seed varieties in it’s vault and provides support for local farmers. They also conduct research on sustainable farming practices at their organic farm in Uttarakhand, North India. The organization has approximately 5,000 crop varieties, mostly staples, including rice, wheat, millet, kidney beans and medicinal plants. They have established more than 100 additional seed banks in 17 Indian states and have created a learning center, offering courses on biodiversity protection, agro-ecological practices, water conservation and other ideological courses.

A popular initiative in the United States is the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization devoted to saving seeds and sharing heirloom seeds. Their mission is to “conserve and promote America’s cultural diversity and endangered food crop heritage for the future by collecting, growing and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.” Created more than 40 years ago in Iowa, this bank location is at Heritage Farm in Decorah. The organization also maintains seed banks at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. The facility offers services through the sale of more than 600 heirloom varieties and is one of the largest banks in North America.

The list continues to grow with Unesco launching the Man and Biosphere Program to conserve biological resources. And the Great Lakes Bioneers Initiative in Chicago strives to “honor and elevate the work of seed saving for the purposes of protecting and expanding the non-GMO native and edible seed saving projects.”

As recently as 2008, the New York City Native Plant Conservation in conjunction with the New York City Dept. of Parks and Recreation, launched a native plant conservation initiative to promote and conserve diverse native plant species. Launched with 34 endangered species, they hope to preserve New York City’s biodiversity and general awareness surrounding the conservation of urban plant varieties. A partnership with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden uses research on endangered plants to create new management strategies for the future.

SeedsThey have a list of all native plant species in the city, which is used to develop seed transfer zones without diminishing the genetic fitness of native plants.

Perhaps the granddaddy of all the seed banks is the international Svalbard Global Seed Vault (CGIAR), founded by conservationist Cary Fowler. Built at a cost of $8 million, the facility off Norway is the Arctic Repository of seeds for the world’s crops. The vault is also known as the “doomsday vault,” resting more than 1,100 kilometers south of the North Pole. The Svalbard Vault prohibits the storage of genetically modified plants, but the idea of crop diversity and seed banking allows access to continued creation of GMOs. Located deep in the side of a frozen arctic mountain on the outskirts of Longyearbyen, in the main city of Svalbard, Norway, the vault can weather any disaster from bombings to earthquakes. The location was selected due to being remote, the climate and geology and storage opportunities. The door opens to a 400-foot long tunnel into the mountain, reminding some of a James Bond-type facility. Since the opening of this global backup system in 2008, more than 800,000 samples of approximately 4,000 at-risk-plant samples have been deposited from across the world, representing some 13,000 years of agricultural history.

Seeds are stored under tight security so that no single person possesses all the codes required to enter the vault. No one ever is allowed to open or test any of the seed packages and will only be accessed if the originals are destroyed. The Seed Vault can accommodate up to 2.25 billion seeds in total, which equals 500 seeds of some 4.5-million crop varieties. Priority for space in the vault is given to seeds that ensure food production and sustainable agriculture. The collection is primarily composed of seeds from developing countries. The vault is managed by the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center.

The reality of seeds under stress and the possibility of losing crop diversity becomes an issue during wars or disasters, such as the floods in Thailand or typhoons in the Philippines. When Iraq was invaded, botanists took their seed banks to Syria for safekeeping. No matter what country becomes involved in disaster, the people require a vast amount of seeds for sustainability, rather than starvation. Syria’s civil war required the first withdrawal from a major seed bank.

Would any of us have given our lives to save seeds? When we remember how one person—Vavilov—collected and preserved seeds for the world to thrive, then we know the importance of seed banks.

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