Saving plant seeds

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Barley Hordeum vulgare © Ita McCobb

Scientists say that, given an uncertain future, it’s important to store the seeds of as many different crop varieties as possible. With climate change and plant diseases that could wipe out a single plant species overnight plus a steady rise in demand for food – a UN estimate of of at least 8 billion people living on the planet by 2024 – seeds are becoming in short supply.

Seeds & crop diversity

We need crop diversity to give mankind a better chance of adapting and surviving the effects of these threats, which impact on our ability to grow food and plants’ abilities to adapt to growing in the same soil but in a different climate.

If we continue to try to grow the same plants in the same fields after soil and weather conditions have changed, then we are likely to see dramatic decreases in plant reproduction – this in turn will lower or create non-existent crop yields and ultimately higher food prices.

To these points you must add the decline of over 50% in insect pollinators (particularly bees), which are essential to a plant’s ability to produce seeds for future years.

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Rapeseed Brassica napus © Ita McCobb

What are seed banks/seed vaults?

A seed bank is a place, rather like a library, that stores seeds in a protected environment for future use. The aim of a seed bank is to preserve as many different varieties of crop, wild plant and “at risk” species as possible and in this way help protect the genetic diversity of the world’s future food crops and local environments.

A good seed bank needs to be able to collect and store as many quality and disease-resistant seeds as it can. It has to screen any seeds it plans to store for quality and disease resistance and to be able to provide solutions to alternative crop varieties in areas where current ones are at risk.

As well as the Global Seed vault (buried deep in the side of a frozen mountain on the Island of Svalbard within the Arctic Circle), many research universities and institutes worldwide maintain their own gene banks of food crops, storing them as dried seed in freezers. But these facilities are relatively small and vulnerable.

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References: Svalbard Global Seed Vault; Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT); University of Birmingham, School of Biosciences; UN Population Fund (UNFPA); International Panel on Climate Change; Parallel Declines in Pollinators and Insect-Pollinated Plants in Britain and the Netherlands, J. C. Biesmeijer et al., Science magazine.