As the risks from the climate crisis and global conflict increase, seed banks are increasingly considered a priceless resource that could one day prevent a worldwide food crisis. Two in five of the world’s plant species are at risk of extinction, and though researchers estimate there are at least 200,000 edible plant species on our planet, we depend on just three – maize, rice and wheat– for more than half of humanity’s caloric intake.
There are roughly 1,700 seed banks, or gene banks, around the world housing collections of plant species that are invaluable for scientific research, education, species preservation and safeguarding Indigenous cultures.
“At a first glance, seeds may not look like much, but within them lies the foundation of our future food and nutrition security, and the possibility for a world without hunger,” said Stefan Schmitz, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving crop diversity for food security. “Well-funded, well-maintained seed banks are critical to reducing the negative impact of the climate crisis on our agriculture globally.”
We take a look at some of the world’s most important seed banks, whose goal isto safeguard biodiversity as it rapidly diminishes.
The doomsday vault
Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, dubbed the “doomsday vault” or the “Noah’s ark of seeds”, aims to contain a duplicate of every seed housed in other banks across the globe. Its location is deliberately remote, sited in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the north pole. The hope is that the permafrost and dense rock into which the vault has been sunk will ensure that seed samples remain frozen – although it was breached in 2017 by meltwater after high temperatures in the region.
Svalbard can store up to 4.5m varieties of crops and 2.5bn seeds . It houses more than 1.14m seed samples of about 6,000 different plant species.
Though it serves the global community, the seed vault is owned by the Norwegian government and managed with support from the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving crop diversity for food security.
“Collections of depositing gene banks destroyed by conflict or natural disasters such as fire, earthquakes or flooding can be restored by retrieving copies of those seeds from Svalbard,” Schmitz said. “There is no question that without such a facility we would be risking the security of our future food supply.”
The seed bank that escaped Syria’s war
ICARDA, Beirut, Lebanon
Originally headquartered in Aleppo, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) gene bank became a casualty of the Syrian war and was forced to close in 2012. It is the only institution to ever make a withdrawal from Svalbard which it used to rebuild its collection, now split between Lebanon and Morocco. “For us it was invaluable,” said Hassan Machlab, country manager for Lebanon, Jordan & Palestine at ICARDA. “You cannot put a price on this collection.”
Machlab describes the organization’s seed bank as a “sea of genetic material” used to help improve crops globally, producing new varieties with bigger yields and better disease resistance.
The Lebanese operation is predominantly dedicated to conserving the wild relatives of cereals and legumes. “Wild relatives have adapted to such long periods of different climatic conditions, and they have very interesting genes that we are always trying to explore,” he said. “[These] genes could be useful to improve food production by increasing yield, adapting to climate change, or water scarcity.”
In February, ICARDA deposited 8,000 samples at Svalbard seed bank.
The most biodiverse place on the planet
Millennium Seed Bank, Sussex, UK
Launched in 2000, and located in rural Sussex, England, the Millennium Seed Bank is considered to be the most diverse wild plant genetic resource in the world.
In flood-, bomb- and radiation-proof vaults, it houses a collection of more than 2.4bn seeds belonging to about 40,000 species. The Millennium Seed Bank contains seeds from almost all of the UK’s native plant species plus collections originating from 189 countries and territories, and it stores nearly 16% of the world’s wild plant species.
Between 2011 and 2021, it collaborated with the Norwegian government and the Crop Trust on the “crop wild relatives project”, an initiative aimed at conserving and using the wild relatives of priority crops, such as bananas, beans, peas, carrots and apples, to help ensure the world’s future food supplies. During the project, more than 100 scientists collected roughly 4,500 seed samples “from the world’s biodiversity ‘hotspots’ – diversity that might otherwise have been lost forever”, according to the Crop Trust.
The world’s first seed bank
Vavilov Institute, St Petersburg, Russia
Located in St Petersburg, Russia, and considered one of the oldest seed banks in the world, the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry was established more than 100 years ago by the Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, a pioneer in crop diversity conservation.
The institute nearly disappeared during the siege of Leningrad in the early 1940s but was saved by a group of scientists who guarded the species they had been collecting for more than 15 years at that point.
By the end of the siege, nine of them had died of starvation rather than eating – and destroying – the collection of crops they were safeguarding. Vavilov himself also died of starvation in prison in 1943.
Today, the Vavilov Institute houses more than 325,000 seed samples, including seeds of crops that might otherwise have been permanently lost, such as Ethiopian wheat which was almost destroyed during civil wars in the 1970s.
The world’s largest seed bank
National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation, Fort Collins, Colorado
The National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins is operated by the US Department of Agriculture and serves as a backup to genetic plant material within the US. With a capacity to store 1.5m samples, 50% of which can be kept in cryogenic tanks, it currently houses more than 500,000 samples of genetic material from close to 12,000 plant species.
Seeds at the Fort Collins-based bank are often distributed to scientists for research and education and have also been used to prevent and treat disease resistance. In the 1980s, seeds from this bank helped overcome a Russian wheat aphid pest in Texas, when a couple of samples were found to be resistant to the aphid and were bred into affected wheat plants to control the infestation.
The seed bank preserving an indigenous culture
The Potato Park, Pisac, Peru
The Potato Park, located in Pisac, Peru, a rural village nestled in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, is a unique seed bank.
Managed by local Indigenous communities the park conservesa wide array of Andean crops including maize and quinoa but it has a special focus on potatoes, housing around 2,300 of the 4,000 varieties of potatoes known in the world, and 23 of the more than 200 wild species of potatoes currently known to humanity. Archeologists believe the potato was first domesticated around 8,000 years ago, near the bank of Lake Titicaca, which borders Bolivia and Peru.
Aside from being an essential project to conserve the genetic material of valuable crops, the Potato Park is a critical territory to preserve the Indigenous heritage of the six communities and more than 6,000 people who call this park home.