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Banking Seeds for Doomsday

In these times of tumultuous weather patterns and no certainty about the future stability of Earth’s climate as civilization has known it, it’s reassuring that a significant portion of the planet’s legacy of plant diversity has been stashed for safekeeping deep inside an Arctic mountain. The “Doomsday Seed Vault”—so called because it is protecting agriculture systems...

In these times of tumultuous weather patterns and no certainty about the future stability of Earth’s climate as civilization has known it, it’s reassuring that a significant portion of the planet’s legacy of plant diversity has been stashed for safekeeping deep inside an Arctic mountain.

The “Doomsday Seed Vault”—so called because it is protecting agriculture systems worldwide from disasters natural or manmade—has now secured over 740,000 samples or “accessions” on Norway’s remote Svalbard archipelago, the Global Crop Diversity Trust said in a recent news release to mark the fourth anniversary of the project.

The Trust maintains the seed vault, in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center, as a back-up to the living crop diversity collections housed in “genebanks” around the world.

“Rare wheat collected from the ‘Roof of the World’ in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan; amaranth, with its exotic blood-red stalks that are used in a ‘Day of the Dead’ drink; barley that helped spawn the craft beer revolution; and once- forgotten forage crops that could sustain livestock in these climate-stressed times are among the 24,948 seed samples arriving [last week] for the fourth birthday of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV),” the Trust said.

“The incredible range and importance of the seeds that have been sent here this week for safekeeping provide vivid examples of why we need to carefully collect and preserve our planet’s crop diversity,” said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. “Our crop diversity is constantly under threat, from dramatic dangers such as fires, political unrest, war and tornadoes, as well as the mundane, such as failing refrigeration systems and budget cuts. But these seeds are the future of our food supply, as they carry genetic treasure such as heat resistance, drought tolerance, or disease and pest resistance.”

Among the contributors for the fourth anniversary are the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym CIAT), and the national crop genebanks of Tajikistan and Armenia. Both CIAT and ICARDA are part of the CGIAR Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers, which is the largest single contributor of seeds to the vault.


Details from last week’s Global Crop Diversity Trust news statement:

Climbing to the Roof of the World to Collect Wheat

The Tajikistan shipment includes wheat and barley collected from the country’s remote Pamir Mountains—one of the highest ranges on the planet, often called the “Roof of the World.” The seeds are the first from the former Soviet Republic to be deposited in Svalbard. Wheat grows inabundance on the country’s remote mountainsides, across varying elevations and amid hot summers and blistering, snowy winters. And while Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia, experts say it hosts a rich diversity of a food crop that billions of people depend upon for survival. Such diversity is particularly important today, as scientists are scouring genebanks in search of wheat that is resistant to a resurgent and virulent strain of wheat stem rust that can devastate yields.

Adding further depth to the wheat collections at Svalbard is a new shipment of wild types that grow in a range of climates and conditions in Armenia. Crop scientists are keen to collect and preserve wild relatives of wheat and other crops because they tend to be more hardy and diverse than their domesticated cousins, and so could offer plant breeders a rich source of valuable genes, including those that confer characteristics such as salt or cold tolerance.

The USDA-ARS’s NPGS is also depositing a particularly important variety of wheat. It is known as Norin-10 and is one source of the dwarfing genes that have endowed contemporary wheat plants with a strong, short stem capable of supporting more grain. First introduced to US wheat breeders in the 1950s by Dr. Orville Vogel, Norin-10 and the varieties developed from it were later used by Dr. Norman Borlaug in the development of the highly productive wheat of the Green Revolution.

Norin-10 is among the 12,801 samples contained in this most recent NPGS shipment to the seed vault, some of which have been in the US collection for over a century. NPGS now has contributed a total of 69,307 seed accessions to the vault, the most from any national collection.

“The process of cataloguing and delivering seed duplicates to the vault is a timely reminder that we invest in agricultural research to ensure that when our food crops are challenged—as they constantly are by pest, disease and weather extremes—we will always have the tools on hand to fight back,” said Dr. David Ellis of the NPGS.

Bloody Cocktails for the Dead and Barley for Beer

Another crop sent by the NPGS is amaranth, whose seeds once provided a nutritious grain for the Aztecs and the Incas and was first cultivated 8,000 years ago. Recently, the grain was “rediscovered” by the food industry as a high-protein, gluten-free alternative to wheat. Several of the varieties being sent to Svalbard, Amaranthus quitensis, were also used for healing and medicinal purposes. Today, its stems supply the red pigment that provides rich red color to “colada morada,” a traditional South American beverage used in Ecuador during its Day of the Dead observance. The sample sent to Svalbard was collected in 1979 from a family farm in San Andres, Ecuador.

Also coming from the NPGS are several subspecies of barley, Hordeum vulgare, that were imported to the US in 1938 via Poland. Known as “Betzes” barley, an old German variety, the grains took root in the Pacific Northwestern US and now appear in the pedigrees of 18 modern varieties grown in the region—including the malting barley known as “Klages” that is a favorite of America’s rapidly growing craft beer movement.

Sustaining Livestock in a Time of Climate Stress

The past year brought several reminders of other threats to crop diversity and the food security it maintains. Most recently, a severe drought and cold snap in Mexico have destroyed crops and left livestock starving to death. At least 60,000 cattle have been reported dead so far, as forage crops have been unable to survive in such harsh conditions.

CIAT is sending a collection to the seed vault that includes 1,365 forage crop samples—crops grown to provide sustenance for livestock. Among the varieties are forage crops collected in the 1970s and 1980s that once were considered to have little importance. Yet some of these varieties appear tolerant to flooding while others have exhibited drought tolerance, which makes them of substantial interest today in a world where farmers are increasingly encountering both extremes.

“This is an example of why seed banks need to systematically collect and maintain as many varieties as possible, not just what is currently popular,” said Daniel Debouck, head of genetic resources at CIAT. “Weather patterns are rapidly changing as are pests and diseases and other growing conditions. We need to be constantly looking beyond the priorities of today. The abundant moisture of a La Niña could soon revert to a dry El Niño. At every turn in the weather, we could be caught unprepared and the potential economic losses and hunger that result could be significant.”

The Trust’s Cary Fowler highlighted a recent example of the dangers facing crop diversity. The Trust had been funding the National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory (NPGRL) of the Philippines to duplicate their unique varieties of bananas, yams, sweet potatoes and taro. The genebank had almost completed this painstaking and time consuming process when a fire in late January destroyed the work. NPGRL holds the largest national germplasm collection in Southeast Asia.

“Watching years of work destroyed in just a few hours is a costly reminder of the importance of having our crop diversity duplicated and secured. Without safety duplication it only takes a few seconds to lose a crop variety, and all its potential, forever. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to our children to do everything we can to stop this happening,” said Fowler.

The mission of the Global Crop Diversity Trust is to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide. Although crop diversity is fundamental to fighting hunger and to the very future of agriculture, funding is unreliable and diversity is being lost. The Trust is the only organization working worldwide to solve this problem. The Trust is providing support for the ongoing operations of the seed vault, as well as organizing and funding the preparation and shipment of seeds from developing countries to the facility.

12418031_10153900711084116_8462971761216697621_nDavid Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.

He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.

Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn