Photo by: GettyImages/Katja Kircher

GettyImages/Katja Kircher

Seed Banking: Storing Plant Diversity to Ensure Healthy Food

By: Robin Fearon

What is a seed bank and how can it help up save certain crops from extinction?

March 13, 2020

Travellers to the Arctic islands of Svalbard would find a rugged, ice-hardened terrain, sheltering polar bears in its frozen landscapes. This Norwegian archipelago (a group of islands) is the land of the “midnight sun” with almost 24 hours of sunlight during the winter months. It is also home to one of the most important storage facilities in world farming – the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

The seed vault was opened in 2008 in an effort to safeguard the world's food supply for future generations. Svalbard is the perfect frozen environment to house seed samples, set inside an Arctic mountain at 130 meters above sea level, so it is unlikely to be flooded. Low humidity, geological stability, and the surrounding permafrost can keep seed deposits cool (so they remain dormant), dry, and viable for centuries.

Seed gene banks from around the world have sent food crop seeds as a fail safe in case natural disaster or environmental damage destroys existing supplies. Worldwide there are more than 1,700 seed gene banks that store seeds locally and many choose to send back-up samples to facilities like Svalbard's vault.



Endemic species seeds stored on test tubes, Sao Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal

Photo by: GettyImages/Santiago Urquijo

GettyImages/Santiago Urquijo

There is space in the global vault for 4.5 million different crop varieties with each variety storing on average 500 seeds, meaning it can house 2.5 billion seeds.

There are around one million seed samples from 80 institutes in the vault at present so there is a lot of spare capacity for the vegetables, grains, peas, beans, peppers, and legumes that are banked annually. On top of that, there are foraging grasses and rare flowers such as threatened orchid species from the Myanmar rain forests.

The largest numbers of samples in the vault are varieties of rice and wheat. There are more than 150,000 samples of each and a further 80,000 samples of barley, 35,000 maize, and 25,000 soybean. The seed vault has been listed as one of the most influential projects of the past 50 years for its efforts.

Seeds themselves are not kept for farmers or gardeners to grow produce. Their true value is as a genetic resource in plant breeding to create new crop varieties. “Think of the seeds as a collection of traits, or even more broadly as a collection of options our crops will have in the future, options such as disease and pest resistance, drought and heat tolerance, better nutrition,” said Svalbard founder Cary Fowler.

Among those collections we need more seeds from wild varieties, the cousins of domesticated crops, say scientists. As extreme weather conditions such as higher temperatures or drought affect food crops, the resilient traits of wild plant species can be added to domesticated plants to improve their resistance to hostile conditions.

“We have made incredible progress tracking down crop wild relatives that could hold the key to food’s survival,” said Marie Haga, former executive director of the international non-profit Crop Trust. “But there is more to be done, and as threats to the world’s biodiversity mount, this work is more urgent than ever.”

Seed banks seek plants that are true-to-type (ie, they yield the same type of plant year after year) and they prefer open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. Open-pollinated plants have been pollinated naturally by insects, wind, birds or other means and are more genetically diverse and adapted to their environment. Heirloom varieties are those that have been passed down over generations among communities.

Domestic crops are struggling to keep up with climate change and a report on plant adaptation shows that agricultural production will drop by a third if farmers do not start planting resilient crops now.

Nutrients including protein, zinc and iron are also affected by higher carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, so having a diverse range of crops to create new resilient varieties is vital.

There is criticism of the Svalbard facility in that it grants access to large corporations who could commercialize plant varieties from the planet's shared natural resources. Co-founder of the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, Kent Whealy, said that seed deposits placed in Svalbard are under the control of a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization treaty that opens them up to corporate scientists.

That potential weakness is also one of the seed bank's greatest strengths – the availability to tap into plant traits and genetics that can ensure a healthy food supply.

What remains central to the work of seed banks and exchanges – where gardeners and farmers find or exchange seeds that they either want or have too many of – is supporting communities most affected by climate change, natural or man-made disasters. To grow plants in adverse conditions means keeping access to the planet's natural resources open, and that is what seed banks do best.

For more information on saving and storing seed and the principles of seed banking, the Center for Food Safety has a resources page with advice for growers.

Next Up

The Bacteria Library: One Hundred Years of Infectious Bugs

Britain’s most important bacterial library, the National Collection of Type Cultures (NCTC) turned 100 this year.

Global Meltdown: Scientists Race to Gather Crucial Climate Data from Glaciers

Glaciers store a vast amount of important climate data within their frozen rivers of snow and ice. But many of the world’’s 220,000 glaciers are under threat from global warming and are melting at an accelerating rate. Now scientists are in a race to gather long-frozen records of Earth’s past climate from the ice.

Mapping Dark Matter in Outer Space

Scientists in Zurich are using facial recognition-style algorithms to map what we cannot see in space.

Vertical Farming: Raising Agriculture’s Potential and Lowering its Environmental Impact

Our planet is finite and with the population growing, how do we provide food to the world without taking up more space?

During a Plague, Newton Discovered Gravity

The world is currently locked in the grip of the deadly novel coronavirus. Around the globe, schools are closed, businesses are shuttered, and families are staying home as much as possible in order to curb the spread of the disease.

Storm Dennis, When 2 Become 1 Menacing Bomb Cyclone

What is a bomb cyclone? And what’s up with Storm Dennis being such a menace in the UK?

The Coronavirus: What You Need to Know About the Virus

As the death tolls rise, Coronavirus is on the minds of people all over the world. Learn about this new virus and how we got here. Originally published: 2/20/2020 Updated: 3/9/2020

Launching Rockets Into the Aurora Borealis - and Other Stories About the Northern Lights

Those that live in the Arctic Circle echo that no words can do justice to the sheer experience of the ‘celestial dance’ that occurs in the skies.

23,000-Year-Old Human Footprints Discovered in America

Ancient human footprints found in New Mexico suggest people may have arrived in the Americas 10,000 years before scientists had previously thought.

Sunken Treasure: Ancient Underwater Forest May Be Source of Medicinal Bounty

A sunken underwater forest in US coastal waters is still positively teeming with life and may even hold the key to sustaining humanity.