By Jeanine DeLay
One crop seed becomes extinct every single day.
Evidence indicates that humans first started eating grain seeds and subsequently planting crops around 10,000 BC. Since then, farmers’ selection turned wild plants into a rich variety of agricultural crops. Each of these varieties was not only different in terms of nutrition, flavor, and culinary qualities, but also carried genes that helped it survive pests and disease, floods or droughts, as well as temperature extremes. It is these resistance traits that we will need to adapt our food crops to a changing climate. However, this genetic diversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate.
As commercially mass-produced seeds replace family and heirloom varieties that once were handed down from generation to generation, the genetic variety in fields is reduced. As corporations continue to patent the genetic code of new seeds as well as the seeds themselves, new varieties from that plant can no longer be bred—or its seeds replanted. As a result of these factors and others, an estimated half of all crops have been lost in the past century.
To solve this problem, seeds must be preserved for future generations in seed banks such as Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the most secure and advanced protector of crop specimens.
At the end of the world
Svalbard (Norway) is geologically stable, well above sea level (130 meters/430 feet), and enjoys low humidity and no measurable radiation. In addition, the arctic permafrost offers natural freezing so that in the event of mechanical failure, seed samples remain frozen, even without electricity, for 25 years.
A global seed bank
The world needs new crop varieties which can be productive in a changing climate and feed growing populations. To develop these new varieties, plant breeders and farmers need access to the genetic diversity of all crops. But seeds are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate, and national seed collections are often lost due to war and mismanagement.
Over 740,000 seeds
Since 2008, the vault has received more than 740,000 seed samples, making it the most extensive collection of crop diversity in the world. Seeds are stored and sealed in custom-made three-ply foil packages. The packages are sealed inside boxes and stored on shelves inside the vault at -18°C (-0.4°F).
This article originally appeared in Handshake: Food & PPPs, IFC’s quarterly journal on public-private partnerships. Handshake explores innovative and successful approaches by governments that are tapping the private sector to improve basic public services. Copyright © IFC, a member of the World Bank Group.
- TED Talks Video: Cary Fowler: One seed at a time, protecting the future of food
- A Modern Noah’s Ark article & related video from 60 Minutes in Handshake: Food & PPPs