Learn how and why they protect the world's crop diversity -- and why Martha is visiting the largest seed vault in the world.

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hills rice crops
Credit: Toby Smith/Reportage by Getty Images for The Global Crop Diversity Trust.

When it comes to food, there's no doubt we love having options -- who doesn't want to try all 4,000 varieties of potatoes that exist in the world? But the only way we can reach our (dream!) goal of finding a recipe for every edible variety is with crop diversity. This means that as our world changes and evolves everyday, everything we eat, from potatoes to purple rice, can continue to change and adapt with us.

According to Crop Trust, an international nonprofit dedicated to preserving crop diversity, preserving this fundamental aspect of sustainable agriculture also means ensuring global food security, reducing poverty, and protecting our environment from degradation. And one crucial way to protect crop diversity? Meet the seed bank.

plant gene bank
At the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) gene bank in Gatersleben, Germany.
| Credit: Courtesy of Global Crop Diversity Trust / Flickr

WHAT IS A SEED BANK?

A seed bank is a type of gene bank. A gene bank, sometimes called a gene library, is essentially a collection of genetic material. These banks can house up to hundreds of thousands of crop variety seeds, seedlings, even plant and animal tissue samples. Think of a seed bank as a safety warehouse for crop diversity. "Without these banks, all the world's crop varieties would one day disappear," says Luis Salazar, the communications manager at Crop Trust. "Some of them are already disappearing on a daily basis."

If you're wondering whether this means gene banks also house GMOs, the answer is both yes and no. At Svalbard, where Martha is visiting next month, Norwegian law prohibits the importation of genetically modified organisms. However, currently, there is no global standard for the rest of the world's seed and gene banks in terms of permitting GMOs. This is largely due to the on-going debate of the role genetically modified crops should play in food security, which has long been a subject of public controversy.

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Beans at the The International Center for Tropical Agriculture gene bank in Colombia.
| Credit: Neil Palmer / International Center for Tropical Agriculture

HOW CAN GENE BANKS HELP PRESERVE CROP DIVERSITY?

Because of our changing environment, from climate change and natural disasters to urbanization, crop varieties are dying out on a daily basis. Organizations like Crop Trust work to protect these gene banks indefinitely through funding, support, and research.

In addition to preserving global food security, crop diversity also allows farmers and researchers to create new kinds of crops. In this case, gene banks not only preserve crop varieties, but may also allow for cross-breeding. For example, a farmer may discover that they need to harvest a new kind of rice that is resistant to a specific disease or can withstand increasingly colder climates. This farmer can reach out to gene banks and work with breeders and researchers to develop a new variety of rice with the necessary traits. This process however, can be a time-consuming one, often taking up to 10 years.

Many gene banks also serve as informational powerhouses for researchers and scientists to study genetic data like crop nutritional value and wild relatives. In fact, together with Genetic Resources Program of the CGIAR and the Secretariat of the International Treaty on the Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, Crop Trust has also helped launch Genesys, an online database centralizing information from gene banks across the globe, all in one easily accessible place.

HERE: Everything You Need to Know About Seed Starting
mexico gene bank wheat
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center's (CIMMYT) maize and wheat gene bank in Mexico.
| Credit: Courtesy of Global Crop Diversity Trust / Flickr

HOW MANY GENE BANKS ARE THERE IN THE WORLD? WHO CAN ACCESS THEM?

There are about 1,700 gene banks world wide, including regional, national and the 11 internationals. Farmers, breeders, researchers, and scientists mainly work with gene banks.

CAN EVERY KIND OF CROP BE PRESERVED IN A GENE BANK?

Mostly. Salazar describes crop varieties as being currently either "in situ" or "ex situ". "In situ" means a crop is being conserved in the fields and not in a gene bank. "Ex situ" means a crop is currently being preserved in gene banks. To date, there are nearly 7.4 million crops "ex situ", including any duplicates.

There are also some crops, known as "recalcitrant seeds" (avocados, apples, coffee beans) that cannot be conserved as seeds in genebanks. This is because they do not survive the drying and freezing process needed for conservation. Instead, these are kept as live collections, also known as "field gene banks."

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The International Cocoa Gene Bank Trinidad (ICGT).
| Credit: Courtesy of Global Crop Diversity Trust / Flickr

WHAT'S THE GENE BANK THAT MARTHA IS VISITING?

Martha is actually visiting the Svalbard Seed Vault. While gene banks safeguard to conserve and share, the Vault houses backups. Every gene bank is required to keep backups of their inventories at another gene bank elsewhere in the world. This way, if Mexico's maize collection suddenly becomes endangered, they can rest assured their duplicate crops in a backup gene bank are safely guarded.

svalbard seed vault
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
| Credit: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust

The Vault is the ultimate backup of the world's gene banks. Every country can send their seeds to Svalbard to be safeguarded; currently the Vault holds more than 890,000 from nearly every country in the world. It can hold up to 4.5 million crop varieties. The Vault is located so remotely that Salazar describes it as: "A place where there are less people than polar bears, a place where even if all the ice melted and the water levels rose, the crops would still be safe!"

WHAT CAN I DO TO HELP PRESERVE CROP DIVERSITY?

"Be curious," says Salazar. Try a new variety of potatoes or peppers the next time you go grocery shopping. Request new kinds of produce from your farmers markets or partake in local seed swap events. "We need to work on crop diversity from different angles. Gene banks may be far from direct impact, but any consumer can also play a part." With crop diversity to thank for all varieties available to us today -- from chocolates to coffees -- Salazar reminds us: "It's everyone's responsibility. If we all eat, we all have a stake in crop diversity."

To learn more about Crop Trust and how you can donate, please visit here.

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