Sowing the Seeds of Biodiversity Conservation

The agriculture industry depends on about 150 crops grown on a significant scale worldwide. This, obviously, is not very many. Preserving them all, and more, is integral to a functioning ecosystem. Each crop plays a vital role in our delicate global balance, with different traits ranging from tolerances to pests and disease to drought resistant plants that require less water. Preserving the existing varieties of crops is crucial to ensure that productive harvests continue indefinitely. For many, the decrease in biodiversity is far from their radar, but as the global population increases and diseases become more virulent, staunching it will be a global effort.

Enter the seed bank – a storage facility for seeds. Types of seeds stored include food crops and rare species. Rare species of seeds are often stored in order to preserve seed diversity as well as the heritable traits in seed varieties. Seed banks also aid plant breeders in the enormous task of breeding crop varieties that deliver higher yields, improved pest and disease resistance and the ability to thrive in extreme growing conditions.

Biodiversity has declined in recent years due to developments in agriculture aimed at increasing the productivity of selected plants, animals and microorganisms. Ranching is a famous example of this – a new breed of cattle is lost every month but those who do survive are able to produce an enormous amount of food. Reducing biodiversity, while highly beneficial in the above sense, also has serious downsides. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 percent of the genetic diversity of crops has been lost. The selection of fruit and vegetables harvested for sale in the developed world is dominated by heavy cropping, reliable varieties with a long shelf life. The United States had 7,100 apple varieties in the 19th century. Presently, only 300 remain.

Seed banks are an efficient and cost effective way to preserve genetic diversity for future conservation work. The practice of storing seeds is advantages in a variety of ways: seeds can be cultivated into plants for restoration purposes regardless of season; seed storage allows for a greater collection of genetic diversity than individual plants in living collections; seeds occupy very little space and are more compact than living plants; seeds can be stored for a considerable length of time; and duplication of seeds at multiple seed banks provides a safeguard against accidental loss at one location.

A Goliath among seed banks, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a backup facility for the world’s 1,750 seed banks, housing a total of 750,000 seed samples – about two-thirds of the world’s stored crop biodiversity. The epitome of meticulous planning and security, the Svalbard is located in the permafrost of Norway’s Arctic archipelago, one of the world’s most northerly habitations. It is maintained at a constant temperature of -18°C. If disaster were to cut off its electricity supply, two centuries would pass before the vault warmed up to freezing point.

Damage and security threats to seed banks are not taken lightly, due to the precious cargo housed within. Destruction or theft could mean the loss of years of scientific research, not to mention rare or nearly extinct seed species.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCD) backs the Svalbard Seed Bank. GCD is a public-private partnership raising funds from individual, corporate and government donors to establish an endowment fund that will provide complete and continuous funding for key crop collections. The Trust’s mission is to advance an efficient and sustainable global system of off-site plant conservation by promoting the rescue, understanding, use and long-term conservation of valuable plant genetic resources.

The examples above illustrate the efforts that are ongoing to conserve plant biodiversity in a time of unprecedented species loss. While we cannot recoup what we have already lost, it is entirely possible to foster the diversity of the species we do have and continue moving forward.

Meika Jensen, 2012
Meika has also written for the website