Jonathan Weigel

Food For Thought: The Global Importance of Seed Banks

The decline in crop diversity is an issue that has plagued the agricultural gene pool for a better part of the past century. With the advent of genetically modified produce, companies like the multinational seed distributor Monsanto brought about an industrial boom, with a surplus of hearty, hardy produce—a strategy for mechanizing crops to maximize efficiency and growth. In the post-war era of industrial agriculture (as fewer and fewer people were growing their own produce at home,) this quickly emerged as the most economically feasible model. The practice of growing standardized, secure plant strains became preferable to maintaining native and heirloom plants.

The ascent of what is now known as “Big Food” was necessary to ameliorate food shortages after World War II – and it was also a way to revitalize the American economy through a new kind of commodity: food. But as the decades pass, and as concerning large swaths of farmland are cleared for widespread commercial use, the motto “more of the same” poses a greater and greater threat to biodiversity of native plant species everywhere, along with climate change and the ever-looming specter of nuclear warfare. In 2010, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations stated that crop biodiversity had fallen a whopping 75 percent in the past century—a conservative estimate that continues to rise.

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Maintaining genetic diversity in plants is important because it acts as a security blanket against disease. Without it, the world’s food basket could vanish in an instant.[addtoany]

If a nuclear bomb strikes the our nation’s capital, the feds have a plan: the President, key members of Congress, and other upper-level officials head down beneath the East Wing of the White House and into the President’s Emergency Operations center, where they can plan the next step. That takes care of the politicians – but what about the plants? Given the monocultures and increasing lack of diversity in global crop production (everyone in South America grows the same breed of bananas, for example) all it takes is one catastrophe – a widespread famine or a plague– for entire crop species to die out. Maintaining genetic diversity in plants is important because it acts as a security blanket against disease. Without it, the world’s food basket could vanish in an instant.

But as dismal as the future of the world’s crop diversity may seem, the future of food security is actually, well, secure. Hidden in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, a hostile land 810 miles from the North Pole where the permafrost forms a carpet that crunches beneath one’s feet, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which has been protecting the world’s seeds since 2008. Founded and funded by the Norwegian government and supported by Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource center, the vault was conceived in the 1980’s as a way to preserve most major food crops’ seeds. According to a survey of its offerings taken in 2014, the total estimate of amassed seed samples was 770,000 varietals– and as the vault has enough space for 4.5 million seeds, it may very well become the world’s agricultural “hard drive” of sorts. Svalbard is carved 500 feet deep into an icy mountain– a steeled vault whose security is predominately automated, with some human employees. As a result, the vault can wither just about anything thrown at it, be it a nuke or an asteroid like the one that killed the dinosaurs.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Mari Tefre

Despite its high-tech construction, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is essentially a souped-up version of the thousands of smaller, local seed banks scattered throughout the world (an Atlantic article aptly compares them to “safety deposit boxes.”) Every country is invited to store genetic samples of their earthly wares in the vault for free, which in turn may be requested or traded with other countries’ goods. Svalbard houses thousands of varieties of major food crops like sorghum and wheat, but it’s also a haven for endangered and rare species. A crop of 20,000 seeds deposited in the bank last February included wild Andean potatoes from Peru, heirloom red okra from North America, hundreds of Japanese barley seeds, and nearly 2,000 variants of corn. By comparison, the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation (a Colorado seed bank maintained by the USDA) holds half a million different seeds.

As our grocery stores continue to supply us with greens and the plains of the Midwest churn out grain bundle after grain bundle, we might view a seed bunker in the North Pole as an overindulgent measure. But consider what Cary Fowler, the Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, said in a recent interview with the Atlantic regarding the importance of the vault: “This is the inheritance of the Neolithic times, and our time, and everything in between. So I guess I see it as a library, a library of life, that gives the history and culture of agriculture and protects it– but it’s also a resource for the future.” The goal, according to Fowler, isn’t just to preserve agriculture, but human existence as a whole. It’s a way to remember our roots, our sustenance, how we came to be, and the future that we’ve inherited.

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