The Importance of Seed Banking

Global Seed Vault (photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Hopkins, National Geographic/Getty Images)

The Global Seed Vault, where the world's seed diversity is saved, Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway. Photo courtesy of Ralph Lee Hopkins, National Geographic/Getty Images

Nearly six hundred miles north of Norway, dug deep below the permafrost into solid rock, a massive vault contains some of Earth’s most precious treasure: seeds. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds nearly half a million specimens from around the world, preserved at 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Global seed banking conserves genetic diversity” and helps safeguard against disease, says Surinder Chopra, associate professor of maize genetics. Around the world, more than 1,400 seed banks, large and small, function as backup systems in case of environmental catastrophe. Should an entire crop be wiped out, planters could use seed reserves to start again.

Because industrial agriculture has made many crops less genetically diverse, they are potentially more susceptible to disease, blight, and pests. Globally, biodiversity is diminishing at an unprecedented rate “at the ecosystem, species, and genetic levels,” Chopra explains. “This has far-reaching consequences, especially for the poorest communities,” which are hit hardest by agricultural calamities.

The diverse gene pool preserved by seed banks “provides researchers and breeders with genetic material for breeding and genetic engineering,” to help poor, indigenous farming communities mitigate those consequences.

The United Nations has also declared 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity. Currently, 193 countries participate in international treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (the United States has signed but not ratified the treaty). Further, groups such as Bioversity International and Global Crop Diversity Trust fund seed banks around the world. From St. Petersburg, Russia, to Portland, Oregon, to Lima, Peru, seeds safeguard humanity’s future.