Issue 102: Seeding the Future

September/October – 2008
Author: Christine Paul

Computer graphic giving another dimensional look at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault deep inside the mountain.

In the face of climate change, food shortages and the ever increasing impact of human activities on the planet, seed banks provide a fail-safe mechanism for the sustainability of global food supplies into the future.

A seed bank is defined as a type of gene bank. Around the world seed banks store seeds for food crops, or those of rare species to protect biodiversity as a source for planting in the event that seed reserves elsewhere are destroyed. In the case of food crops, many useful plants that have been developed over centuries are now no longer used for commercial agricultural production and are becoming rare. Storing seeds also guards against catastrophic events like natural disasters, outbreaks of disease, or war.

Orthodox seeds can stay dormant for decades in a cool and dry environment, with little damage to their DNA; they remain viable and are easily stored in seed banks. By contrast, recalcitrant seeds are damaged by dryness and sub-zero temperature, and so must be continuously replanted to replenish seed stocks. Examples are the seeds of cocoa and rubber.

Seeds are dried to a moisture content of less than 6% before being stored in freezers at -18°C or below. Because seed DNA degrades with time, seed needs to be periodically replanted and fresh seeds collected for another round of long-term storage.

Some of the challenges in storing seeds are that: stored specimens have to be regularly replanted when they begin to lose viability; only a limited part of the world’s biodiversity is stored; it is impossible to store recalcitrant seeds; only 15% of all seed banked plants are wild species, the remainder are crops; and facilities are too expensive for third world countries, which contain the most biodiversity.

At the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the UK, the Millennium Seed Bank Project (MSBP) and its partner seed banks contain not only seeds for the future but also seeds that are currently being used to provide a wide range of benefits to mankind. These range from food and building materials for rural communities to disease-resistant crops for agriculture.

With future climate change scenarios and the ever-increasing impact of human activities, the MSBP intends to accelerate its activities to secure in safe storage 25% of the world’s plant species by 2020. By the end of the decade, the MSBP will have banked seed from 10% of the world’s wild plant species – around 24,000 native plant species. These will not be just any plants, but will include the rarest, most threatened and most useful species known to man.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on a remote island in the Arctic Circle.

The Doomsday Vault
Earlier this year in Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – also known as the Doomsday Vault – was opened to much fanfare, drawing world leaders and media attention from around the globe. Situated on a remote island in the Arctic Circle, the vault received inaugural shipments of 100 million seeds that originated in over 100 countries. Many of these collections are from developing countries.

If seeds are lost, for example, as a result of natural disasters, war or simply a lack of resources, the seed collections may be re-established using seeds from Svalbard. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault deposits range from unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato. These first deposits into the seed vault represent the most comprehensive and diverse collection of food crop seeds being held anywhere in the world.

At the opening ceremony, the Prime Minister of Norway, Jens Stoltenberg, unlocked the vault, and together with the African Nobel Peace Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai, placed the first seeds inside. President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and a host of international dignitaries and agriculture experts also deposited seeds during the ceremony as Norwegian musicians and choirs performed 130 metres deep within the frozen mountains.

Built near the village of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, the vault at its inception contains 268,000 distinct samples of seeds – each one originating from a different farm or field across the world. Each sample may contain hundreds of seeds or more. In all, the shipments of seeds secured in the vault weighed approximately 10 tons, filling 676 boxes.

The opening of the seed vault represents part of an unprecedented effort to protect the planet’s rapidly diminishing biodiversity. The diversity of the world’s crops is essential for food production, yet is being lost. This ‘fail-safe’ facility dug deep into the frozen rock of an Arctic mountain is set to secure for centuries, or longer, hundreds of millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today.

As well as protecting against the daily loss of diversity, the vault could also prove indispensable for restarting agricultural production at regional or global levels in the wake of a natural or man-made disaster. Contingencies for climate change have been worked into the plan. Even in the worst-case scenarios of global warming, the vault rooms will remain naturally frozen for up to 200 years.

“With climate change and other forces threatening the diversity of life that sustains our planet, Norway is proud to be playing a central role in creating a facility capable of protecting what are not just seeds, but the fundamental building blocks of human civilization,” said Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.

“Crop diversity will soon prove to be our most potent and indispensable resource for addressing climate change, water and energy supply constraints, and for meeting the food needs of a growing population,” said Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust and mastermind behind the project.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is funded and established by Norway as a service to the world. The Global Crop Diversity Trust is providing support for the ongoing operations of the seed vault, as well as organising and funding the preparation and shipment of seeds from developing countries to the facility. NordGen will manage the facility and maintain a public on-line database of samples stored in the seed vault, which has the capacity to house 4.5 million samples – some two billion seeds.

“The significant public interest in the seed vault projects indicates that collectively we are changing the way we think about environmental conservation,” Wangari Maathai said. “We now understand that along with international movements to save endangered species and the rainforests of the world, it is just as important for us to conserve the diversity of the world’s crops for future generations.”

“The opening of the seed vault marks a historic turning point in safeguarding the world’s crop diversity,’’ said Cary Fowler. “But about 50% of the unique diversity stored in seed banks still is endangered. We are in the midst of trying to rescue these varieties. Our success means we will guarantee the conservation and availability of these wildly diverse crops. Forever.”

The building of the vault itself has attracted much outside interest due to its location and its unusual engineering, security, and aesthetic features. Its engineering allows it to stay cool with only a single 10-kilowatt compressor, which is powered by locally generated electricity.

The vault consists of three highly secure rooms sitting at the end of a 125-metre tunnel blasted out of a mountain on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. The seeds will be stored at -18º Celsius (-0.4º Fahrenheit) and sealed in specially-designed four-ply foil packages. The packages are sealed inside boxes and stored on shelves inside the vault. Each vault is surrounded by frozen arctic permafrost, ensuring the continued viability of the seeds should the electricity supply fail.

The low temperature and moisture level inside the vaults will ensure low metabolic activity, keeping the seeds viable. If properly stored and maintained at -20º Celsius (about – 4º Fahrenheit), some seeds in the vault will be viable for a millennium or more. For example, barley can last 2,000 years, wheat 1,700 years, and sorghum almost 20,000 years.

The Australian National Botanic Gardens Seed Bank
In Australia seed banks are increasingly being seen as an important conservation tool for maintaining the diversity of Australian flora. Large quantities of genetic material can be stored in a very small space in a seed bank and for very long periods of time if the conditions are suitable. Seed provides genetic diversity not found in cloned material (cuttings). Many plants cannot be propagated from cuttings and must be propagated from seed.

The Seed Bank at the Australian National Botanic Garden (ANBG) is part of the garden’s Living Collection. The ANBG is currently the custodian of one of the largest collections (in terms of species) of seed of Australian native species with about 4,500 accessions from 2,300 taxa. It houses its own collection of seeds of threatened species, which acts as a form of ex situ conservation, for the preservation and reintroduction of threatened species.

The Seed Bank consists of a fully equipped laboratory, a drying, cleaning and packaging area and a freezer (-18ºC) for seed storage. There are two main types of seeds based on their storage characteristics. Orthodox seeds, which can be dried and stored frozen, and recalcitrant seeds, which cannot tolerate severe dehydration and so cannot be preserved using these traditional methods. The ANBG Seed Bank only stores orthodox seed.

Functions of the Seed Bank at ANBG include: supplying seed to the nursery to produce seedlings for planting at ANBG; acting as a gene bank for long-term storage of rare and threatened flora; and supplying seed to other institutions through their plant release program. Seed is supplied for approved projects at other botanic gardens, universities and similar institutions. It is not supplied to private individuals.

Upon receipt at the facility, seed is fumigated with carbon dioxide then dried at 20°C. Fruits may be opened by drying or by heating. Seed is distinguished from chaff, fillers and dividers at this stage and sample seeds are cut in half to identify good quality seed and check the percentage seed set. Seed is then cleaned and packed into moisture-proof containers before being stored for future use.

The ANBG Seed Bank is a co-partner in Florabank, a Natural Heritage Trust initiative set up by Greening Australia to provide links between all native seed banks in Australia.

Meanwhile, Patrick Mooney, Executive Director of ETC group, while praising Norway for its contribution of the Global Seed Vault and its commitment to contribute to the benefit-sharing fund of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, also warned that “we are not there yet.”

Referring to a “lack of trust”, Mooney said that: “if we are going to survive climate change, we need the ecosystem knowledge of farmers.

“If we are going to have a chance to adjust and shift to threats, we need the farmers to help us.”

He recounted that 30 years ago there were 30,000 seed enterprises listed by FAO. Today, the top 10 countries have 55% of the seed market and four countries have almost 100% of the GMO market. Along with this, there are new challenges such as extreme genetic engineering that brings with it a risk.

“We must remember that we cannot depend on technology to solve our problems,” he said. “We need seeds in the vault.”

About the author
Christine Paul is a Sydney-based freelance journalist with a special interest in the environment and organic issues.

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