Save seed banks, save the world

Seed banks provide a treasure trove of genetic diversity. The challenge, say scientists, is bringing together existing banks and ensuring their financial security so as to conserve the world’s crop history before it is lost forever

As an increasingly bloody civil war raged around them, a team of scientists in the Syrian capital Aleppo quietly packaged and shipped a series of nondescript cardboard boxes to an island not far from the North Pole. The boxes bore no sign of the conflict that had surrounded them, nor the precious material they contained.

The scientists, from an International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) research station, had carefully packed up thousands of samples of barley, wheat, chickpea and other seeds: a treasure trove of genetic diversity.

“It was extraordinary,” says Ola Westengen, one of the scientists’ Norwegian colleagues who received the seeds. Westengen saw the seeds safely stored in a special vault buried in the permafrost on an Arctic archipelago. “These seeds are extremely valuable.”

The samples from Syria now sit alongside hundreds of thousands of others – sent by teams in countries from Burundi to Uzbekistan – at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, perhaps the most famous seed bank in the world.

“We need to conserve crop diversity both in the field and in plant genebanks.”

Built to withstand anything from a nuclear strike to rising sea levels, the Svalbard Vault was a media sensation when it opened in 2008. Its unique location, state-of-the-art facilities, and dramatic ambitions led some to dub it the ‘Doomsday Vault’. José Barroso, then-president of the European Commission, called it a “frozen garden of Eden”.

Westengen, who was until recently coordinator of operations at the vault and who now works at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, describes his colleagues’ work shipping seeds from Syria as “heroic”.

But he is not entirely pleased with some of the publicity the vault has attracted. “It’s not a stand-alone project,” he insists. “And it’s not some kind of time capsule up there for ‘doomsday’, which is the impression you can get from some of the media reports.”

Instead, Westengen describes it as the “ultimate back-up” for a vast network of seed banks around the world — including the one at Aleppo. “You have to look at this as part of the larger system. It’s only as part of this system that it makes any sense.”

Collecting and saving seeds is nothing new – it is as old as farming societies themselves. But now this mission is the motivating force for a growing contingent of scientists across the globe, engaged in what some frame as a veritable race against time to conserve the world’s crop diversity before it is lost forever.

“We should look at crop diversity as we look at water and air. This is a very fundamental natural resource,” says Marie Haga, a former Norwegian government minister who is now the executive director of The Global Crop Diversity Trust, the international organisation that oversees the Svalbard Vault.

The Crop Trust was set up after the international treaty on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (sometimes called the ‘Seed Treaty’) came into force in 2004. Among other things, the treaty established a multilateral system to facilitate access to plant genetic resources, focussed on 64 priority crops.


The Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. © Flickr member: Landbruks- og matdepartementet

Today more than seven million samples of seeds, tissues and other plant materials from food crops and their wild relatives are stored in an estimated 1,750 seed banks around the world.

Most of these were built in the last few decades, as scientists worldwide sounded the alarm over growing threats to biodiversity and the potential consequences this could have for future food security (the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75% of global crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000).

But many of these repositories are located in risky environments. The national seed collection in Côte d’Ivoire was largely destroyed during the country’s civil war. In 2011 looters in Egypt damaged collections in both Cairo and North Sinai.

“In fact, any building on the surface of this earth is vulnerable somehow and it’s a good idea to have a backup,” says Westengen. “That’s the role of Svalbard.” The idea is that if existing collections are lost or damaged, they can be replenished using what scientists call their seeds’ ‘safety duplicates’.

Today, more than 60 seed banks globally have already sent samples to Svalbard. Since it opened in 2008, its collection has more than tripled in size from just under 268,000 samples of everything from maize to radish to almost 840,000 by the end of 2014.

But some say the work has just begun. The Crop Trust, set up in 2004 as a financing mechanism to conserve the world’s crop diversity, is working on what it calls “a global system of ex-situ crop conservation”.

In addition to the Svalbard Vault, this ‘system’ comprises nearly a dozen international seed banks, housed within the research institutes of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and organised around specific crops – such as maize and wheat in Mexico or rice in the Philippines – plus more than a thousand national seed banks and other collections scattered around the globe.

“Many of these [local collections] are unfortunately in poor shape, and some of these hold very important material” says Haga. “The biggest challenge is to raise standards in the seed banks that need to be part of this global system, and to fund this global system.”

The Crop Trust’s goal is to develop a structure that would allow the world’s seed banks to maximise their resources by integrating their collections and sharing detailed information about what they contain.

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“There are way, way too many seed banks. There is a lot of duplicate material,” says Michael Koch, the Crop Trust’s director of finance. “There certainly isn’t enough money for 1,700 collections but we don’t need so many either.”

How this streamlining will work in practice is still being hammered out. In January, the Crop Trust held an international meeting with different stakeholders to discuss how best to build the “global, rational and cost effective system” it desires.

A draft strategy paper discussed at the meeting estimates that there are likely 100 or so “globally significant collections” of crop samples which should be prioritised. Collections that receive the Crop Trust’s support to be integrated into the global system will need to be accessible to researchers and meet technical standards set by the organisation.

“Eligible institutions will receive long-term funding to manage collections provided that they are able to maintain the standards set. Additional funding will be sought and provided for additional activities such as adding to or improving collections or data, increasing the availability of collections or data, backing up collections in Svalbard, and so on,” it adds.

But nothing is happening overnight. Groups of experts are now working to identify collections to prioritise and select which ones need help first.

And before any of this can be put into action, the Crop Trust still needs to answer the multi-million dollar question of how to pay for it.

“There’s always this challenge of secure funding for the long term. My seed might last for 200 years, but my money only for two years. That’s the contradiction,” says Jonas Mueller, senior research leader at the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership at Kew Gardens in the UK, which is working with the Crop Trust on a multi-year project to collect and preserve samples of the ‘wild relatives’ of the world’s staple crops.

The aim of the Crop Trust is to secure funding to conserve crop diversity indefinitely. But they know this is a difficult ask.

“This is why the endowment was created – so we don’t need to go around and beg for money every year,” says Koch. The idea is that donors are only asked to give once, with the endowment’s funding being invested so that it is self-sustaining.

First published by SciDev