Five Global Seed Banks That Are Protecting Biodiversity

By Victoria Russo

Almost all food begins with a seed. Even when people eat meat or other animal products, those animals were most likely fed on grasses or grains that began as seeds. Seeds are the basis of plant life and growth, and without them, the world would go hungry.

The world is home to hundreds of thousands of species of plants, and it requires a diverse variety of seeds to satisfy nutritional and environmental needs. Today, Nourishing the Planet takes a closer look at five seed banks that aim to protect biodiversity and help feed the world.

The world requires a diverse variety of seeds to satisfy nutritional and environmental needs. (Photo Credit: jamesandeverett.com)

1. Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Project, Wakehurst, England

How many plant species can you think of? Of the roughly 400,000 known species, the Millennium Seed Bank aims to conserve 25 percent in the form of seeds by 2020. The seed bank is located on the grounds of Britain’s Royal Botanical Gardens, which were constructed by King Henry VII and are now considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Focused on conserving seeds from plants that can be used for food production, the Millennium Seed Bank currently holds seeds from over 10 percent of all plant species.

Millennium in Action

The Royal Botanical Gardens has been collecting research on seed saving since 1898 and has had a formal seed bank for 40 years. In recent years, it has concentrated on collecting seeds from environments that are most vulnerable to climate change. In addition to developing new crop varieties that are more adaptable to changing environments, the Millennium Seed Bank Project has implemented an international education program in an attempt to preserve ecosystems worldwide. A large part of its educational outreach program has taken place in rural regions of Africa, in countries including Kenya, Botswana, Burkina Faso, and Namibia. Promoting projects from nutrition to forestry to sustainable agriculture, the Millenium Seed Bank Project is working to feed the world and sustain the environment.

2. Navdanya, Uttrakhand, India

Since 1987, Vandana Shiva, who created Navdanya, has dedicated her life to protecting seed diversity. Navdanya is an agricultural research center that seeks to protect seed biodiversity and the livelihoods of small farmers. The organization believes that people should have a right to save and share seeds, and has created a seed bank that conserves only unpatented seeds.

Navdanya in Action

Since its creation, the Navdanya seed bank has conserved around 5,000 crop varieties, focusing largely on the preservation of grain species. The 54 community seed banks that Navdanya has piloted have preserved nearly 3,000 species of rice alone. In addition to protecting seed biodiversity, Navdanya aims to spread agricultural information through educational campaigns.

3. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Svalbard, Norway

Preserving seeds for long periods of time requires extremely cold temperatures and low humidity. That’s why Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located deep in the permafrost-covered mountains of Svalbard, was deemed the ideal site for a global seed bank. Funding for the seed bank, built from the remains of an abandoned mine, was provided largely by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the aim of permanently protecting agricultural and plant biodiversity. The vault has the capacity for 4.5 million seed samples and currently houses over 430,000 specimens, including samples from Armenia, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Tajikstan. Genetically modified organisms are allowed in the seed bank only after evaluation and approval and must be specially sealed to prevent the spread of genetic modification to other samples.

Svalbard in Action

Despite being nicknamed the “Doomsday Vault,” Svalbard is a forerunner in global environmental problem-solving and innovation, and frequently hosts events on topics related to food security and climate change. In 2009, the seed vault held an international conference on climate change and the challenges of feeding the world’s growing population. The vault also has hosted influential policymakers including United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

4. National Center for Genetic Resources, Fort Collins, Colorado

Located on the campus of Colorado State University, the National Center for Genetic Resources (NCGR) is home to one of the world’s largest gene banks. The center is unique in that it does not simply host seeds, but various types of germplasms, or collections of genetic information, including plants, animals, insects, and microorganisms. In its plant division, the center contains pollen, meristem tissue, and cell cultures. The NCGR strives to ensure that its germplasms maintain the same genetic properties over time, so that traits do not change as reproduction occurs.

NCGR in Action

One of the goals of the NCGR, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, is to conduct genetic research for the development of new cultivar varieties. The center frequently publishes briefs on nutrition and agricultural methods, and also tracks ecological trends. In August 2012, scientists from the center created two new blueberry varieties known as Gupton and Pearl that are praised for their high yields and flavorful fruit. Also within the department, horticulturalist Joseph Albano of the Agricultural Research Service has recently developed an ecologically cleaner alternative to fertilizers that contribute to heavy metal watershed pollution. In addition to hosting over 8,000 species of seeds, the NCGR contributes greatly to genetic research and agricultural development.

5. Vavilov Research Institute, Russia

Russia has a rich history of botanical studies that have included plant management, disease control, and the recording of plant varieties. The Vavilov Research Institute (VRI) was opened in 1924 and has since expanded into 12 research stations throughout Russia. The stations’ seed banks house a combined total of some 60,000 seed varieties, and their herbariums contain some 250,000 plant specimens. Specializing in berries and other fruits, the VRI holds over 1,000 types of strawberries alone. According to journalist Fred Pearce, nearly 90 percent of seed and plant specimens at the VRI’s Pavlovsk station are not found in any other seed or gene bank in the world.

Vavilov in Action

Seed banks around the world are continuously at risk, and Vavilov is no exception. The VIR is probably most well known for its Pavlovsk station, which during World War II was put under siege by the Axis powers. During the siege, 12 scientists protected the station’s seed bank from destruction, and out of respect for the value of seeds, they starved instead of eating them. Today, this station is once again under attack, but this time the threat comes from developers who wish to build on 227 acres, or three-quarters of the field station’s property. Another station in Krasnodar, Russia, was recently exposed to extreme flooding.

Seeds, not frequently the subject of public discussion, hold the potential to regenerate species, promote biodiversity, and enable ecosystems to adapt to an ever-changing world. Biodiversity in seed varieties is essential to the maintenance of human, plant, and animal life as we know it. Seed banks around the world provide a valuable service by protecting these small but important resources.

Do you know of other innovations in biodiversity conservation? Let us know in the comments below!
Victoria Russo is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture program. 

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