It is wonderful to learn about and frightening at the same time – at least to me. There are people planning for the end of the world as we know it. I’m not talking about the individuals storing food, water, batteries and other supplies and ammunition with plans to hunker down in secretive locations far away from cities. I’m talking about scientists planning ahead with things like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault located in Norway and the Seed Bank at the N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in Russia.
According to Cary Fowler in a talk he delivered for TED, “One seed at a time, protecting the future of food” the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has seeds from every country in the world. Its creation is an unparalleled example of international cooperation.
One of the things Fowler stated during his talk jumped out at me – “diversity gives us options.” While he was talking about crop diversity, this phrase applies to many other areas of life. It also got me to wondering if having a single global seed vault in the word is a great idea – despite its isolated, heavily protected, mountain location in Norway, one of the friendliest countries in the world. In the comments about his article, an idea of having a living seed bank was posited as opposed to this static one.
The situation with the Seed Bank located in Pavlovsky, Russia, on the other hand, is dicey. In an article published in the Boston Globe last August, “The Celebrated Russian seed bank struggles for its land, survival” Irina Titova of the Associated Press writes:
“The agricultural station is facing the loss of 225 acres of which it grows one of the world’s largest field collections of fruits and berries, including almost 1000 types of strawberries from 40 countries, 300 varieties of cherries, and almost 900 kinds of black currants…As many as 90 percent of the plans are no longer found anywhere else in the world.”
These fields are threatened because of “court-approved plans to rip up its vast fields of genetically diverse plants and build fancy homes on the prime real estate they occupy near St. Petersburg.”
The seed bank survived World War II “thanks to 12 Russian scientists who chose to starve to death rather than eat the grain they were saving for future generations.”
I am hoperful that scientists and governments are thinking about these issues. Agriculture and the seeds on which it relies must be preserved for the survival of humankind as the planet warms.
N.I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry – Seed Bank
The Living Seed Bank
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention two other efforts in this area which are connected.
The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri is a not-for-profit research institute. On their website they write: “Scientists at the Center are engaged in research that strives to enhance the nutritional content of plants, increase agricultural production to create a sustainable food supply, reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizer, develop new and sustainable biofuels, and generate scientific ideas and technologies that will contribute to the economic growth of the St. Louis region.”
Last fall I volunteered with my sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew and scores of other people packing bags of rice and beans to be shipped to “Africa.” We were allowd to take guided tours of the modern facility by looking into labs where new crops were being bred. Many places were off-limits . I felt like I was in a sci-fi movie. I said to my sitter and her family, “If the food we’re sending to “starving Africa” is so good, why aren’t we eating it here? Hmmm.
This center has a relationship with a giant nearby – Monsanto. Growing up in St. Louis – Monsanto Chemical Corporation, as it was then called and I will forever remember it, was nothing nice. On their website they write: “It is our purpose to work alongside farmers. We do this by selling seeds, traits developed through biotechnology and crop protection chemicals.”
They are concerned with the future of agriculture. Unfortunately, they have patented seeds, something not done before them, forbidding individual farmers from storing seeds, etc. Read more about this in Harvest of Fear, an investigative report by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele published in Vanity Fair (May 2008).