In Seeds We Trust

Encounters / by Maywa Montenegro & Nikki Greenwood /

Because science won’t save us if biodiversity fails, a global effort is underway to collect and cache the genetic resources contained in seeds.

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The Svalbard Seed Vault, encased in a mountain in the far north, is the last-ditch source of the world’s seeds. Click for slideshow. Photo Credit: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust

By now you’ve probably heard about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. While it was under construction, and then as it opened in February 2008, the media couldn’t get enough of the “Doomsday” seed bank. We learned that the bomb-proof concrete bunker was encased in permafrost, 130 meters-deep inside the sandstone of a Norwegian mountain. It would store copies of seeds currently housed in the more than 1,400 gene banks worldwide, so that should calamity strike any of those gene banks, Svalbard’s seeds would save the collections—and thus humanity—from the jaws of famine. 

Maybe it was the nickname “Doomsday” vault. Or maybe it was the remote location, north of the Arctic Circle where no trees grow. Whatever the reason, people have tended to associate Svalbard with some catastrophic scenario—one unlucky summer when locusts tear across the Midwest, an airborne fungus rains over Africa, and China’s soybeans succumb to asteroid strike or nuclear war. But Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and intellectual father of the Svalbard Seed Vault, believes that apocalypse has already crept on us. “By the end of the century, average temperatures during growing seasons in many regions will probably be higher than the very hottest temperatures now,” he says, citing a recent paper in Science. “By 2030, we could see a 30 percent drop in maize production in Southern Africa; 2030 is only two crop generations away. We’re not talking about some time in the distant future when we all expect to be dead. We certainly can’t wake up in 2029 and decide to do something.” The millions of seed samples in gene banks worldwide will be invaluable for plant geneticists and breeders looking for new traits to develop the crops of 2030, Fowler says.

Those national and international banks, however, are vulnerable to floods, fires, earthquakes, and other natural hazards, as well as war and civil strife. Surprisingly, the most pervasive danger is plain old poor maintenance. “Conditions are pretty dismal in many of these places,” said Fowler. “Most seed banks simply don’t have the resources or manpower to maintain their stocks.” Once a sample falls below an 85 percent germination rate, the genes within those seeds are in danger of being lost forever. Fowler estimates that 50 percent of the world’s seed stores currently fail the test.

So while the Vault is certainly the most famous—and most photogenic—of the Diversity Trust’s ventures, another of its projects is equally important for global food security. The small Rome-based organization has launched an ambitious rescue program aimed at keeping seed stocks above that crucial 85 percent regeneration rate, providing the equipment, labor, training, and supplies (such as airtight seed envelopes) for gene banks in some 70 countries to replant their samples, cull fresh seed, and update their records on approximately 100,000 samples. Following successful regeneration, many previously inaccessible seeds will for the first time be available to plant breeders, plant geneticists, and plant pathologists, Fowler says. It’s also the perfect time to create a batch of backup samples, some which will be sent to a cooperating gene bank—such as one of the 11 maintained by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research—and some of which will go to the Svalbard Vault. Without these regeneration efforts, a seed bank would be little more than a seed museum, a cache of curious but useless specimens.

There are some 400,000 seed samples already in the Svalbard Vault; several times a year, cargo planes land on the tiny airstrip on Spitsbergen Island carrying new contributions in acronym-labeled crates: rice from the Philippines’ IRRI, potatoes from Peru’s CIP, and a cornucopia collection from the USDA. For the most part, however, these samples are domesticated varieties. The traits we’ll need to engineer climate-change resistant crops may need to come from the wild relatives of our food crops, which are much less well-represented in the gene banks. “These wild relatives are everywhere on the planet,” says Fowler. “But we’re losing them fast due to urbanization, farmland expansion, and now climate change.” Already, he says, much genetic diversity has been wiped out save for a small pile of seeds in a gene bank so collection could mean the difference between survival and extinction. “And yet, we can’t possibly gather it all. So the question is: Where do I buy the plane ticket to?”

Fowler’s group has recently begun collaborating with Andy Jarvis of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia to help whittle down the possibilities. They have created a set of GIS maps, each showing a possible threat to wild species—things like projected climate change in 2030, frequency of wildfires, infrastructure development. Together these maps become a sort of filter: When overlaid on a map of uncollected varieties, they indicate which species are most endangered and which areas have not even been explored. “In other words,” says Fowler, “you’ve just found where to buy the plane ticket to.”

Some of the most promising areas have yet to be visited at all. For example, a GIS map of Africa showing previously sampled sites (black dots) and temperature zones (colored bands) reveals a wide maroon strip along the bottom of the Sahara, barren of dots. That’s a critical zone, says Fowler, because the plants living in these hot regions are precisely the ones with the genes that will be most useful in breeding and engineering climate-adapted crops. Of course, these extreme zones are often not sampled for that very reason: They are extremely unpleasant. “Seed collecting is much harder than you might think,” says Fowler, “It can be a lot like Indiana Jones.”

Running off to foreign lands to collect seeds might sound like the ultimate act of good Samaritanship; one can envision hordes of young environmentalists on a Peace Corps–like mission to save biodiversity. For some, however, taking seeds raises questions about biopiracy—the theft of proprietary genetic material. However useful their genes may be to the world at large, these seeds belong to the nations in which they’re collected. So who owns the seeds? Who owns the genes? It turns out there’s a complicated history to all this, and Cary Fowler is at its center.

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