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Where Have All the Se-eds Gone?

svalbardLet’s talk about extinction, baby.

Not the sexy kind you hear about on the news: gorgeous apex predator species and cute furry things (oh good for you, pandas). I’m talking about plants. You know, the foundation of the food chain? The producers lacking good PR? The life on which all other life depends? Anyone reading this blog has plants and/or the consumers of plants and/or the consumers of consumers of plants to thank (or blame) for the energy to read this blog.

Sure, there are plants everywhere, but just because we’re surrounded by green things doesn’t mean green things aren’t in danger. If bunnies in Minnesota were a gauge for the health of mammals, we wouldn’t have to worry about polar bears. Keep fretting on that, but what you might want to start worrying about is agrobiodiversity. Remember the potato famine? If we can’t access a variety of plants that can fight off diseases; grow in drought, heat, or saturation; repel pests and weeds without empowering their offspring … we can’t eat. There are hundreds of species of plants that can already do those very things, crops that we have spent centuries selecting and cultivating. Farmers around the world today are keeping those species and their traits alive by planting them, and other scientists, governments, and concerned collectives are working to squirrel away seeds for posterity.

The greater variety of seeds we have on the planet, the greater our collective food security. Threats have been around for centuries and are rapidly increasing. Climate change, obviously, threatens to wipe out whole ecosystems of minimally adaptable plants and animals, but ever since humans started travelling and trading, certain breeds have won beauty or taste or hardiness contests, and the losers have been neglected into obsolescence. Extinction has only increased with the agricultural emphasis on exports and the expanding influence of global agribusinesses, who have financial motivations for pushing their own patented seeds and the synthetic supports they require. The more farm space allocated to corn or soy, the less space available for unique landraces to be sustained. And the less those seeds are utilized, the fewer farmers there are who know how to cultivate them.

The loss of every plant is the loss of a potentially lifesaving crop for us. Over the past century or so, about 75% of genetic diversity in plants has been lost, according to the FAO. And the center for biological diversity estimates that nearly 75% of what’s left is threatened with extinction.

Don’t leave! There’s good news! Unlike soil or water, seeds can be tucked away and protected from extinction in gigantic seed zoos banks, where you can see them in a replica of their natural environment giant packets!

Today there are 1,700 seed banks around the world where samples of successful, regional species are stored for future generations. But buildings, like seeds, are perishable. The threats to these banks have not only been climatological (a Honduran seed bank was destroyed in a Hurricane; others have been badly damaged by floods) but directly anthropogenic: war. Iraq and Afghanistan have both had seed banks hit hard by conflict, and scientists smuggled seeds out of those facilities to keep them viable. So far, the best backup plan devised for these backup plans is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

sval2Tucked away at the edge of the Northern nowhere, the Norwegian seed vault can hold up to 500 seeds each of some 4.5 million crop varieties. Built into sandstone and permafrost, even a power outage won’t raise the building’s temperature much above its ideal -18 degrees C. Not all of the germplasm is from edibles, but “priority … is given to seeds that can ensure food production and sustainable agriculture, and the collection is primarily composed of seeds from developing countries” which often have the richest agrobiodiversity, but the poorest means to protect it.

Syria was recently the first country to make a withdrawal from the Svalbard seed vault. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (seems important) has a large seed collection in Aleppo. The Syrian conflict pressured them to brave danger to retrieve and secure copies of all their germplasm in gene banks outside Syria, mostly in Svalbard. Rebuilding their collection in the safety of Beirut, Lebanon (ironic if you were conscious during the 70s) required reclaiming the duplicate seeds they had banked in Svalbard.

These seeds can’t feed the people currently starving under blockades in Syria, but they could help the survivors reclaim food security in the future. Many refer to the Svalbard seed bank as a “doomsday vault” for the coming climate apocalypse, but war is an increasingly competitive threat. That may be a false distinction, however, since conflicts are increasingly growing out of environmental change. We humans have used our intelligence to some devastating ends, but we’re equally capable of inventiveness that allows us to better protect one another.

Online database of the Svalbard seeds: http://www.nordgen.org/sgsv/

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