Fig.1. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault sits in the island Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole (Credit: Mari Tefre, Global Crop Diversity Trust, via Flickr)
The lonely island of Spitsbergen in northern Norway is an unlikely home for agriculture’s last resort. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, nestled 130 meters into the permafrost, holds the seeds of tens of thousands of varieties of essential food crops, such as beans, wheat, and rice. While the Global Seed Vault operates mainly as a safety net for other seed banks around the world, such repositories are centers of research to protect biodiversity and address world hunger.
The issue of food security is indeed timely for today, which marks the annual celebration of Earth Day and the 45th anniversary of groundbreaking environmental laws in the United States. Unfortunately, the task of providing food remains difficult in an age of melting ice caps, acidifying oceans, and shifting disease and drought ranges. Global warming is a huge threat to current growing conditions, which means the roughly 1,750 seed banks around the world have work to do.
Seeds that can survive the heat
By the year 2050, increasing temperatures could make it impossible for up to 50 percent of common bean varieties to grow in their current ranges. Scientists at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), however, are taking steps to prepare for the heat. Out of the 1,000 bean varieties pulled from their seed repository, they identified 30 able to survive and thrive at warmer temperatures that harm more common varieties.
The next step for CIAT is more difficult. Agricultural researchers could promote entirely new crops to replace more common varieties, which provide the primary source of protein for over 400 million people and remain important in local cooking and culture. Alternatively, they could breed the heat-tolerant beans to fit different areas' preferences and work to develop such traits in traditional strains. This collaboration between seed banks, crop scientists, and farmers is vital to address food security at the local level.
Fig.2. Beans at CIAT gene bank in Colombia, which just sent its latest consignments of seeds for conservation at the Global Seed Vault in Norway (Credit: Neil Palmer, CIAT, via Flickr)
The cultural connection
Seed banks also operate to preserve the cultural significance of certain crops. The Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Arizona, is a seed conservation organization that goes beyond examining genetic traits. This bank, comprised of almost 2,000 traditional crops of Native American tribes, connects the genetic diversity to the cultural component of agriculture. They preserve the seed, as well as indigenous knowledge of the plant and land for use as food, fiber, or dye.
Other banks with more of a scientific focus, like CIAT, still work directly with farmers to breed crops that will fit both the environmental needs and the cultural needs of that area. Particular plants are so entrenched in society, that to ignore the massive loss of biodiversity is also to dismiss the importance of certain crops in human history. For example, out of the thousands of rice varieties in the Philippines and the 20,000 named apple types once cultivated in North America, only a small portion of those numbers remain today.
Repositories under fire
Unfortunately, some seed banks struggle just to protect their collections. Several years ago, the Philippines’ national seed bank was lost to a fire. Other repositories, such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, were destroyed in conflict. The Syrian civil war, in which more than 300,000 people have been killed, forced scientists at the gene bank in Aleppo to send hundreds of thousands of seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. They saved more than 80 percent of the seed bank’s holdings, an effort which won them the prestigious Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize.
When seed banks are lost to natural disasters, conflict, or even funding disputes, our ability to address a changing environment is diminished. A large pool of genetic resources means plants have a better chance of survival against shifting ranges of diseases, pests, and drought due to global warming. Additionally, preserving these seeds strengthens the connection local traditions have to historical crops. To tackle food security head on, we must protect our seed banks and encourage research efforts, even if it means digging over one hundred meters into the ice and snow of an arctic island.
Banking Against Doomsday. (2012, March 10). The Economist. Retrieved from http://www.economist.com/node/21549931/print
Blakemore, E. (2015, April 17). Why Syria’s Protecting Seeds From Its War. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-syrias-protecting-seeds-its-war-180955026/
Food Tank. (2013, August 01). Update on the world’s 15 largest seed banks. AG Professional. Retrieved from http://www.agprofessional.com/news/Update-on-the-worlds-15-largest-seed-banks-217990631.html
Lewin, S. (2015, March 24). 30 Heat-Tolerant Beans Identified, Poised to Endure Warming World. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/30-heat-tolerant-strains-of-beans-identified/
Mooney, C. (2015, April 06). This is the backup plan if all our crops are wiped out. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/04/06/this-is-the-backup-plan-if-all-our-crops-are-wiped-out/