Saving seeds is an important aspect of planning a garden for the following year. Gardeners, whether by nature or nurture, have that essential characteristic for taking the long view, seeing possibilities into the next growing season, before even a single seedling has sprouted.
Taking the long view to protect seeds from a world-wide catastrophe, however, requires an even broader perspective. In the face of catastrophic events, seed savers around the planet have banded together to protect our most important seeds – the ones that will keep people from starving or an animal species from dying away. It is that extra-long view of due diligence that has caused some seed savers to build vaults and seed banks and purposefully set them in extraordinary environments.
The Crop Trust estimates that there are 1700 seed banks in the world, all with varying degrees of success in keeping their seeds protected.
Structures come in a range of strengths and sizes, and are threatened by the mundane, like broken mechanics, to the complicated, like societies warring against their neighbors.
Civil War Requires Withdrawal from Global Seed Vault
At the end of September in 2015, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault received a request from members of the International Center for Agricultural Research for Dry Areas (ICARDA) to make a withdrawal of seed which had earlier been deposited.
After the seed vault had opened on February 26, 2008, regional plant scientists sent samples of seeds from food plants like wheat, barley and grasses common in the dry regions to the Norwegian seed vault for safekeeping. Now, the civil war has damaged much of the seed samples left in the Syrian region and ICARDA scientists have requested a withdrawal.
In the September 23, 2015, science issue, The Atlantic wrote, “Seed banks constitute humanity’s agricultural memory.” The Syrian civil war has threatened part of that memory in a city with one of the earth’s longest recollections, Aleppo. This intersection of life is where experts found records of farming as far back in history as the late Neolithic period, the last stage of the Stone Age.
ICARDA has moved away from Aleppo, Syria, and since 2012, the organization is now based in Beirut, Lebanon.
Fail-Safe Vault Protects Seeds in Svalbard, Norway
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on an island midway between Norway and the North Pole. Svalbard is a part of untouched arctic wilderness where polar bears tread over mosses and lichens.
It was here, in one of the northernmost archipelagos, that the entrance of a metallic rectangular structure was, by all appearances, set on its side and thrust 500 feet into the side of a mountain… all to safeguard seeds.
The technology to preserve the planet’s food supply and biodiversity is cutting edge, literally and figuratively.
The massive refrigerator-like environment is able to hold 4.5 million samples of seed.
Should the lights of the manmade vault go out, its insulation, made of permafrost and thick rock, will allow the seeds to remain viable two more centuries beyond.
The purpose of the seed vault in Svalbard is to offer a separate safer place to store duplicate samples. A fail-safe vault gives the world greater protections for plant genes than those regional seed banks can offer.
Countries around the world have deposited duplicate samples from their banks’ seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as a cautionary practice. Based on international agreements, only the country or organization still owns and has access to withdrawing the seed the original depositor made.
The largest nongovernmental nonprofit seed bank in the United States, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) made an initial deposit of almost 500 varieties to Svalbard in December of 2007 – and another in 2015.
Seed Savers Exchange Deposits Seeds to Preserve Bio-Diversity
Seed Savers Exchange has the largest private seed and plant collection in the United States. Their collection has over 20,000 varieties of heirloom and open-pollinated plants. Their version of a seed bank is an underground freezer vault located at their Heritage Farm in Decorah, Iowa, on 890 acres of land.
Despite their extensive facilities, and a mission to protect plant varieties by regeneration, distribution, and exchange, the Iowa seed exchange stores duplicate seed samples in more highly protected environments such as the bank at Svalbard.
SSE sent seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in 2007 – and more seeds in 2015. They sent seeds with names like the Amarantus elephant head, a bean called Red Lazy Wife, a white radish named Daikon, and a tomato plant called German Lunch Box. Over the years, SSE has also sent duplicate samples to the seed bank at the Fort Collins, Colorado.
Typically, SSE sends out samples in mid-February, although if not all seed from the previous growing season is ready, the supply is held over for the next shipment. The criteria in determining which seed samples to send is whether there is success in regenerating from the seed and whether there is enough supply of that particular variety backed up at SSE.
SSE uses a combination of ex situ preservation, where gene banks protect seeds for the health of the plant variety and in situ preservation, where gardeners grow out a variety to adapt the plant to ever-changing environmental conditions.
Global Seed Bank Organizations Protect the Worlds Seeds
Although there are many global seed banks, according to WorldWatch Institute, there are only five officially recognized seed banks in the world:
- Kew Millennium Seed Bank Project, Wakehurst, England, on the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
- Navdanyai Agricultural Research Center, Uttrakhand, India, with 122 community seed banks in India and Bhutan.
- National Center for Genetic Resources at Fort Collins, Colorado in the United States.
- Vavilov Research Institute, Russia, which opened in 1924 and houses 90 percent seed and plant specimens not found elsewhere around the world.
- Svalbard Global Seed Bank, near Norway, is recognized as a fail-safe facility.
Global Crop Diversity Trust was set up to secure a program of conservation and access to crop diversity for world-wide food security. Crop Trust worked with the country of Norway, and others, to make the Svalbard Global Seed Vault a fail-safe facility and locate it off the coast of Norway.
The International Center for Agricultural Research for Dry Areas (ICARDA) became established in 1977. The organization’s purpose is to challenge countries in the dry regions of the Near East and North Africa on the need for food security.
Gardeners Contribute to Societies by Saving and Sharing Seeds
Gardeners are savers. We keep seeds, preserve bulbs, take leaf and stem cuttings, and grow roots. Then, we share the result of our work with our neighbors; both the material to start plants and the bounty harvested from them. The habits of saving and sharing are ingrained in how gardeners conduct themselves.
We may start out only wanting food to cook a dish or only flowers for a bouquet to set on a table. But eventually, we want to share what we have, and we hope other gardeners will share what they have. Our civil society has benefited from these habits by giving us access to many species and heirloom plants centuries later.
Seed banks are the result of that broad perspective; that saving seeds is an important function of a society. Gardeners play a key role in that habit. Seed savers have learned how to protect the world’s seeds and their biodiversity. This protects Earth’s people from hunger and, also, gives them the ability to grow old plants anew.