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.
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.