Tag Archives: seed banks

Preserving Seeds that Feed the World: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Six hundred miles from the North Pole, on an island the size of West Virginia, at the end of a tunnel bored into a mountain, lies a vault filled with more than 1 million samples of seeds harvested from 6,374 species of plants grown in 249 locations around the globe.The collection, the largest of its kind, is intended to safeguard the genetic diversity of the crops that feed the world.  If disaster wipes out a plant, seeds from the vault could be used to restore the species. If pests, disease or climate change imperil a food source, a resistant trait found among the collection could thwart the threat.

While some countries have their own seed banks—Colorado State University houses one for the U.S.—the Svalbard Global Seed Vault serves as a backup. The vault, built in 2008 at a cost of about $9 million, is owned and maintained by Norway, but its contents belong to the countries and places that provide the samples.  “It works like a safe-deposit box at the bank,” said Cary Fowler, an American agriculturalist who helped found the vault. “Norway owns the facility, but not the boxes of the seeds.”

In 2015, after the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas was destroyed in the Syrian civil war, scientists who had fled the country withdrew seeds to regenerate the plants in Lebanon and Morocco.  “It had one of the world’s biggest and best collections of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, faba beans and grass pea,” Dr. Fowler said. “It was the chief supplier of a disease-resistant wheat variety for the Middle East.”  In 2017, the group returned copies of its seeds to the vault.

The 18,540-square-foot seed vault includes three rooms with the capacity to house 4.5 million samples of 500 seeds each—a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds. The environment’s natural temperature remains below freezing year round, but the seeds are stored at a chillier -18 degrees Celsius, or around -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re expected to last for decades, centuries or perhaps even millennia….

While dwindling diversity might not seem like an imminent threat, four chemical companies now control more than 60% of global proprietary seed sales…That concentration of power, some worry, could lead to less agricultural variety and more genetic uniformity…In the meantime, the seed vault (which doesn’t store genetically modified seeds) will continue to accept deposits in an effort to preserve all of the options it can.

Excerpts from Craven McGinty, Plan to Save World’s Crops Lives in Norwegian Bunker, WSJ,  May 29, 2020

Cryopreservation of Endangered Species

In paper in 2018 in Nature Plants, researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, detail for the first time the scale of threatened species that are unable to be conserved in seed banks. The paper reveals that when looking at threatened species, 36 per cent of ‘critically endangered species produce recalcitrant seeds . This means they can’t tolerate the drying process and therefore cannot be frozen, the key process they need to go through to be safely ‘banked’.

In the paper, Kew scientist Dr. John Dickie, former Kew scientist Dr. Sarah Wyse, and former Director of Science at Kew Prof. Kathy Willis, found that other threatened categories and global tree species list also contain high proportions of species that are unbankable including 35% of ‘vulnerable’ species, 27% of ‘endangered’ species and 33% of all tree species.

Among these species are important UK heritage trees such as oaks, horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts, as well as worldwide food staples like avocado, cacao, and mango. This latest research reveals that the scale of plants unable to be conserved in seed banks is much higher for threatened species. The issue is particularly severe for tree species, especially those in tropical moist forests where a half of the canopy tree species can be unsuitable for banking…

Currently, seed banking is the most commonly practiced way of conserving plantsoutside of their natural habitats. Seed banking works as an ‘insurance policy’ against the extinction of plants in the world—especially for those that are rare, endemic and economically important—so that they can be protected and utilised for the future.

[The scientists proposed]cryopreservation—a form of preservation using liquid nitrogen which offers a potential long-term storage solution for recalcitrant seeds. In seed banks, seeds are dried and frozen at -20°C whereas cryopreservation involves removing the embryo from the seed and then using liquid nitrogen to freeze it at a much colder temperature of -196°C…As well as allowing ‘unbankable’ species to be stored, cryopreservation also helps to extend the lifespans of orthodox seeds that otherwise have storage lives that are too short at -20°C.

Excerpts from Seed banking not an option for over a third of threatened species
November 2, 2018, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Gene Banks: saving world’s crops

Syria’s civil war has forced scientists to request the first-ever withdrawal of seeds from a Doomsday vault built in the Arctic to safeguard the world’s food supplies…The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) said it has made a request to take back some of its samples from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The vault was created by the Norwegian government in 2008 to protect vital crops such as wheat against global disasters, war or disease.

It will be the first time seeds have been withdrawn from the facility, which lies more than 800 miles inside Arctic Circle — midway between Norway and the North Pole — and is the largest vault of its kind in the world. Built into the mountainside on the Svalbard archipelago, it relies on permafrost and thick rock to ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power..,ICARDA has requested approximately 16,500 of its seed samples — one seventh of the total it has stored in Svalbard — and hopes to reproduce them at its other facilities in Morocco and the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. Eventually it will send new samples back to Norway…

He said some scientists were still present at the Aleppo facility but that its one-time headquarters had been occupied by armed groups.  “Fortunately it is not ISIS, they are some fundamentalist groups,” he said. “They seem to co-exist. They are using the land for their own benefit, for example to grow legumes, but we have no control of it…..The Svalbard seed bank has exactly 865,871 samples from every country in the world, Asdal said.  “In fact, we have seeds from more countries than now exist,” he explained, since some of the older seeds are from now-defunct nations such as Czechoslovakia. Syria’s civil war has killed a quarter of a million people since 2011, according to United Nations estimates, and driven 11 million more from their homes.

Excerpts from ALASTAIR JAMIESON, Syria War Forces First Withdrawal from Svalbard Global Seed Vault,NBC News, Sept. 25, 2015

The Costs of Stopping Biopiracy

Botanists think there are up to 80,000 wild species of flowering plant left to discover. But a scarcity of funds hampers efforts to collect them. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, ratified by 195 states and the European Union, made things more complicated. It recognised plants as part of countries’ national heritage and outlawed “biopiracy”—profiting from plants without compensating the countries in which they were found.

That made exploiting plants fairer but collecting them harder. Some officials saw a chance to get rich. “Suddenly everyone thought these plants were incredibly valuable,” says Mr Hawtin. Getting permission to go on a collecting trip became nearly impossible. “Anybody could say no to a collecting expedition and very few people could say yes.”

Permits became sine qua non, but in poorer countries the environment ministries that were expected to issue them did not always exist. Collectors might see their applications bounced from one department to another, each unwilling to wield its rubber stamp. “No one wanted to be accused in their local paper of helping the biopirates,” says Mr Hawtin.

Persistent botanists have since earned some governments’ trust. It is now much easier to get approval for expeditions than it was in the 1990s, though often with restrictions on what may be collected. “Things are much better now than they were ten years ago,” says Sandy Knapp, head of the plants division at the Natural History Museum in London. A three-year permit from the Peruvian government allows her to collect specimens of Solanaceae, the family that includes tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines…The Millennium Seed Bank now holds workshops in many countries on collection and conservation techniques. It collaborates on expeditions and produces guidebooks to help locals locate and collect seeds for themselves. Yet some countries persist in imposing self-defeating restrictions. India’s biodiversity law, passed in 2002, makes exporting seeds very difficult and sits poorly with its international obligations. If governments fail to understand the urgency of preserving—and sharing—their biodiversity, there may soon be precious little left to collect.

Excerpts from Botany and bureaucracy: A dying breed, Economist,  Sept. 12, 2015, at 55

Biodiversity: the wild relatives of crops

“Crop wild relatives”—the wild ancestors of cultivated plants—are a valuable weapon in the fight against hunger. Together with varieties used by traditional farmers, they contain a wealth of genetic diversity. Yet they are under-researched and under-collected. With their survival threatened by population growth and environmental damage, the race is on to find them before it is too late.

Climate change is expected to cause higher temperatures and more frequent droughts, changing the distribution of pests and diseases. Population growth will add to the pressure on productive land: the UN expects the number of people in the world to rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion by 2050. …Dependence on a few staples worsens the consequences of any crop failure. Just 30 crops provide humans with 95% of the energy they get from food, and just five—rice, wheat, maize, millet and sorghum—provide 60%. A single variety of banana—Cavendish—accounts for 95% of exports. A fast-spreading pest or disease could see some widely eaten foodstuffs wiped out.

That makes it even more important to preserve the genetic diversity found in crop wild relatives and traditional varieties as an insurance policy. Alas, much of it has already disappeared. The FAO estimates that 75% of the world’s crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000. As farming intensified, commercial growers favoured a few varieties of each species—those that were most productive and easiest to store and ship.

According to Cary Fowler of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international organisation based in Germany, in the 1800s American farmers and gardeners grew 7,100 named varieties of apple. Today, at least 6,800 of them are no longer available, and a study in 2009 found that 11 accounted for more than 90% of those sold in America. Just one, “Red Delicious”, a variety with a thick skin that hides bruises, accounts for 37%.

Seed banks are the best hope of preserving those that remain. Dehydrating and freezing seeds means that they can be kept for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years, and still sprout when given light and water (as botanists need to do on occasion). Some 7.4m samples are already in seed banks around the world, but huge gaps exist.

As part of a study to be published later this year, Colin Khoury and Nora Castañeda-Álvarez of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a research facility in Colombia, studied the state of conservation of more than a thousand crop wild relatives in seed banks. They found that for over 70% there were either too few samples for safety or none at all.

The Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) in Sussex, part of Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens, is the world’s largest wild-plant seed bank, housing 76,000 samples from more than 36,000 species. It co-ordinates “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change”, a $50m, ten-year international programme funded by Norway to collect and store wild relatives of 29 important crops, cross them with their domesticated kin and share the results with breeders and farmers. Its freezers are solar-powered and its vault is built to withstand a direct hit by a plane (Gatwick airport is close by). Other seed banks are more vulnerable. Staff at the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, an institute once based in Syria, now found in Lebanon, shipped 150,000 samples to save them from being damaged in the former country’s civil war; seed banks in Afghanistan and Iraq have been destroyed. The Philippines lost one to fire.

Located in Cali, Colombia’s third-largest city, CIAT is home to more than 300 scientists. It has a mandate from the UN to protect, research and distribute beans and cassava, staple foodstuffs for 900m people around the world. Its seed bank, housed in a former abattoir, contains over 36,000 samples of beans, more than any other seed bank, and varieties developed there feed 30m people in Africa.

For many years CIAT’s researchers concentrated on creating varieties that could cope with poor soils and drought. But they have now turned their attention to heat resistance. Earlier this year they announced that they had found heat resistance in the tepary bean, a hardy cousin of the common bean cultivated since pre-Columbian times in northern Mexico and America’s south-west. Crosses with commonly cultivated beans such as pinto, black and kidney beans show potential to withstand temperatures up to 5°C higher than those common varieties can cope with. Even a lesser increase in heat resistance, of 3°C, would mean beans could continue to be cultivated in almost all parts of central and eastern Africa, says Steve Beebe of CIAT’s bean-breeding programme…

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which came into effect in 2004 and has been signed by 135 countries and the European Union, identifies 35 food crops that are considered so important to global food security and sustainable agriculture that their genetic diversity should be widely shared. But it has worked less well than hoped. In 2013 a group of Norwegian researchers sent letters to 121 countries requesting seeds. Only 44 complied. Communication broke down with 23 and 54 did not even reply.

If a big crop were to fail, a single useful gene lurking in one wild relative could prevent calamity. PwC, an accountancy firm, values the genes derived from the wild relatives of the 29 crops regarded as most important by the MSB at $120 billion. Preserving the genetic diversity that remains would be an excellent investment.

Agricultural Biodiversity, Banks for Bean Counters, Economist, Sept. 12, 2015, at 54