- The global network of plant gene banks has shown resilience and cooperation, growing in importance as an estimated 40% of plant species are threatened with extinction and the crops used to feed the world become less diverse.
- A newly published paper documents the rescue mission of seeds from a gene bank in Syria to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, and discusses the extensive global system for conserving crop diversity and why it is imperative to do so.
- While Svalbard’s vaults store crop seeds, the Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is the world’s largest wild seed conservation project, now celebrating its 20th anniversary.
- Gene banks are an important part of conservation, but they are not sufficient on their own, one expert says; the wild places and agro-ecosystems these plants come from must also be protected.
By the time the war broke out in Syria, researchers from the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) had already duplicated and safely transported most of their genetic treasure trove to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen, Norway.
The ICARDA facility in Tel Hadia, just south of Aleppo, Syria, once stored the largest collection of crop diversity from the Fertile Crescent, one of the world’s earliest centers of agriculture. When the facility was abandoned in 2014, more than 80% of its collection was backed up in the Norwegian vault.
“When the Arab Spring started, Syria was still considered a very secure and stable country, and then it became complete chaos, as we know,” Ola Westengen, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Life Science who was coordinator of operations and management at the Svalbard Global Seed Bank at the time of the seed rescue, told Mongabay. “[B]ut one should not give the impression that the seeds were somehow smuggled out or sent out in a clandestine way, everything was by the book.”
The safe and peaceful transfer of the samples from Syria, despite extreme conditions, Westengen says, is a testament to how well the international system of gene banks is working.
Westengen is the co-author of a newly published paper in the journal Nature Plants that documents the seed rescue mission and lessons learned from the operation, which, the paper says, illustrates the links between food security, sociopolitical stability, and climate change. The paper also discusses the extensive global system for conserving crop diversity and why it is imperative to do so.
Diversity in farmers’ fields is decreasing, with an estimated 90% of humanity’s caloric intake reliant on just rice, maize and wheat. Threats to crop diversity are addressed in international conservation goals such as the U.N.’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (Plant Treaty) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
A network of international centers preserves regional plant diversity and makes these seeds available to researchers and plant breeders under the conditions of the Plant Treaty, not only to respond to regional disasters but also to develop new varieties that are resilient in the face of challenges such as drought and disease.
Ideally, important digital information is backed up to “the cloud” or a hard drive. Likewise, the important crop genetics from regional seed banks are backed up in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
The vault, built inside a mountain on the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, opened in 2008 with the intention of being a politically neutral and safe location to protect the world’s crop diversity. Samples sent here are duplicates from seed and gene banks, research facilities, and communities around the world, ranging from large institutions like ICARDA, to the Cherokee Nation, who, this year, became the first tribe in the U.S to send important heirloom seeds to Svalbard.
But unlike files on a hard drive, seeds in a vault cannot be stored and forgotten. Even in the ideal, supercooled (-18°C,-0.4°F) conditions of the Svalbard vault, seeds have a shelf life. It is up to each institution providing seeds to be sure the collections in the vaults are regularly updated with fresh, viable samples.
“In some of the stories about the seed vault, you get the impression that this is like a time capsule,” Westengen said, “but the seed vault only makes sense as part of a kind of dynamic system for conserving and keeping the seeds viable … all seeds need to be regenerated and grown out in an environment where they will maintain their genetic integrity. And that’s a much more demanding job.”
In 2015, the ICARDA facilities in Lebanon and Morocco began undertaking the mammoth task of regenerating in the field the plants rescued from Syria, an operation requiring complex logistics and large areas to regrow thousands of different species. But they have been successful. All of the safety duplicates stored in Svalbard were regenerated by September of this year.
“It has been a massive effort,” Mariana Yazbek, co-author of the paper and gene bank manager at the ICARDA facility in Lebanon, told Mongabay. “[O]ur team sacrificed nights and weekends sometimes to ensure this limited resource of seeds was regenerated … We are reaping the benefits of this work now, quite literally.”
This year, gene banks have faced the added challenge of keeping critical plants alive during the COVID-19 pandemic. While some seeds can be left on the shelves for months or even years, conserving roots, tubers and other crops that are not grown from seed such as potatoes, cassava (yuca), yams and some bananas require more attention. These plants cannot be stored for long, and are not backed up at Svalbard, so they must be grown nearly continuously. When the lockdowns began in Lebanon, for instance, ICARDA staff worked on a rotating schedule, traveling only between their homes and work to keep the plants alive.
At another facility, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, researchers preserve many important tropical-adapted crops such as cassava. CIAT has many different genotypes of cassava, all cultivated without seeds, requiring daily work. This year, its staff of 900 was moved to a rotating schedule, with about 300 people coming in each day to keep plants alive and critical experiments running.
“Perhaps you think that the middle of a global pandemic is not an appropriate time to be discussing seed banks. Think again,” Luigi Guarino, director of science, and Charlotte Lusty, head of programs and gene bank platform coordinator at Crop Trust, an organization that supports the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as well as genebanks around the world, wrote in Landscape News. “One thing is certain, to mitigate the effects of future shocks of the kind we’re currently experiencing, and to allow us to bounce back from them, there needs to be diversity in all parts of the food chain.”
Guarino and Lusty say that maintaining crop diversity is an essential task, even during a pandemic, to future-proof the world’s crops from impacts related to climate change, natural disasters, or conflict.
“There is kind of a global system that, unfortunately, very few people appreciate until there is a tragedy,” Joseph Tohme, agrobiodiversity research area director at CIAT, told Mongabay. “Every center can provide you kind of stories … In our case, we had a major project called Seeds of Hope for Rwanda, because during and after the genocide, Rwanda lost a major collection of beans.”
One tragedy, the human-caused annihilation of global plant and animal species, known as the sixth mass extinction, is currently underway. An estimated 40% of plant species are threatened with extinction, according to a report released by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank is working to save some of that diversity. While the Svalbard vault store crop seeds, the Millenium Seed Bank, located in Wakehurst, U.K, safeguards seeds of the planet’s imperiled wild plants.
The Millenium Seed Bank, the world’s largest wild seed conservation project, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Its vault, built to withstand bombs, radiation and floods, holds 2.4 billion seeds from 39,681 species, coming from 190 countries and territories. The facility and its partners say they have helped to protect 16% of the world’s seed-bearing plants.
Among its collection are eight species now extinct in the wild. One of these, the last known wild yellow fatu flower (Abutilon pitcairnense), was taken out by a landslide on Pitcairn Island in the Southern Central Pacific, the only place where it was found. The seeds were already saved at Millennium Seed Bank, and are now cultivated in its greenhouses.
“If that material hadn’t already been collected, then when that landslide wiped out the one remaining plant, we would have had nothing. We would have had no trace of that species, which is now extinct in the wild,” Elinor Breman, senior research leader in seed conservation at the Millennium Seed Bank, told Mongabay.
Like the Svalbard vault, the Millennium Seed Bank has responded in the wake of catastrophe. The massive bushfires in Australia earlier this year burned 23,200 hectares (57,300 acres) in Cudlee Creek near Adelaide. The Millennium Seed Bank sent backup seeds of clover glycine (Glycine latrobeana), a rare, wild pea, to its partners in Australia so that the plant could be cultivated and used to restore the ecosystem.
Research on the science of seed and gene banking is ongoing at the Millennium Seed Bank, including the development of cryopreservation methods to store roots and tubers. Along with their international partners, they are researching useful plant traits and testing species’ responses to environmental stressors such as drought and higher temperatures, predicted to increase as the climate changes.
The Millennium Seed Bank also safeguards some of the wild relatives of crops, the plants from which many of our foods were cultivated. Conserving crop diversity involves protecting the entire gene pool of a crop and that includes its wild ancestors.
Gene banks are an important part of conservation, says Westengen, but they are not sufficient on their own. A continuum exists between ex situ (off-site) and in situ (in-place) conservation, so the wild places and agro-ecosystems these plants come from must also be protected.
“This is something that we all depend on. This is a common heritage. It’s not something that especially benefits any one side in a conflict,” Westengen said. “The issue of seeds is actually quite politicized globally … but pretty much everyone agrees that we need to conserve this diversity.”
Westengen, O. T., Lusty, C., Yazbek, M., Amri, A., & Asdal, Å. (2020). Safeguarding a global seed heritage from Syria to Svalbard. Nature Plants, 6(11), 1311-1317. doi:10.1038/s41477-020-00802-z
Banner image of the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, a remote archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Photo by Subiet via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough
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