Preserving Precious Seeds, in Norway and Your Way

By Adrian Higgins
Thursday, March 6, 2008

Enveloped by the darkness of the arctic winter, a concrete shaft pierces deep into the side of a Norwegian mountain 620 miles from the North Pole. Dignitaries and scientists gathered at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at the top of the world last week to dedicate this $8 million seed bank.

The first consignment of millions of seeds of such staples as rice, barley, potatoes and sorghum has been placed in chambers more than 400 feet inside the mountain, kept at just below 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

On one level, the Svalbard vault is a testament to the ability of farsighted people to work together for the welfare of the human race. But this ark has its darker connotations. Some have called it the "doomsday vault" because it was established to provide seeds needed to feed the planet after some cataclysm, man-made or natural.

For decades, even centuries, the seeds can remain in suspended animation, waiting for the day they will be called. In that regard, Svalbard may be the gardener's Valhalla: a gathering place for fallen heroes, not quite dead, as in Norse myth, but not quite alive either.

The vault is not the world's first refuge of endangered plant stocks. Around the globe are approximately 1,400 government and private seed banks, including the Department of Agriculture's own collection in Fort Collins, Colo.

But Svalbard, drawing on them all, has the richest variety and is among the most remote and fortified. It was built on the island of Spitsbergen by the Norwegian government and is administered by a United Nations-sponsored foundation called the Global Crop Diversity Trust, but it was also made possible, as they say, by home gardeners like you.

Nuclear Armageddon may be one threat to our food supply. Ironically, the industrialization of agriculture has created another risk. Agribusiness does a great job of feeding the world, but with alarmingly few varieties of plants. "Historically, mankind has used 7,000 plant species" for food, said Marc Cool, seed director for Seeds of Change in Santa Fe, N.M. "Today 20 species provide 90 percent of our diet."

The wake-up call came in the mid-1970s when farmers in the United States, relying almost entirely on one variety of corn, saw a near-total crop failure due to a blight disease.

Seeds of Change ( is one of a handful of seed-saving organizations and mail-order catalogues that activists have formed to preserve the genetic diversity of plants grown for food, herbal uses and the sheer joy of seeing a violet-blue morning glory greet a late-summer dawn. Other notable enterprises include Seed Savers Exchange ( in Decorah, Iowa, and Native Seeds/Search ( in Tucson.

Where did these groups find the thousands of varieties now in their inventories and available to gardeners? From home gardeners and subsistence farmers who took seeds from their crops in late summer and early fall, stored them over the winter and started them the next spring. (It is fairly easy to let some of your carrots, onions or lettuce go to seed, or to harvest some tomatoes for their seed, or to keep a few dried beans out of the stew pot for spring sowing.) Unlike fancy commercial hybrids, these open-pollinated varieties grew true to type. Passed from one generation to the next, the saved seeds became known as heirloom varieties and include some of the best-known plants in the garden: the plump and flavorful Brandywine tomato, the striped Chioggia beet, the beautiful Rouge Vif d'Etampes red pumpkin.

The aim of the Svalbard vault is not just to preserve these varieties as we know them but also to safeguard the gene pool for breeding if, say, a devastating new disease emerges or global warming places new stresses on commercially important varieties.

This arctic seed bank of last resort is a noble thing, but you can go one better: By growing some heirloom varieties this year, you can preserve them in the precious vitality of your vegetable plot. Cool shares my view, even though he supports the vault and contributed to its inventory. "I'm actually a firm believer that the best way to preserve varieties isn't to freeze them and put them in a vault," he said. "The best way is to grow them."

The benefits are many. Most of the varieties come with a tale of struggle and achievement, of longing perhaps for a land left behind. In the current catalogue of Seed Savers you can find bean varieties amassed by the late John Withee, a New Englander who devoted much of his life to finding and preserving 1,186 varieties of bean. The sweet pepper variety Bull Nose Large Bell was grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Amish Pie is a pumpkin grown by Amish farmers in Maryland. Soldacki is a large, firm-fruited tomato brought to Cleveland a century ago by Polish immigrants. Growing these keeps the plants alive -- and their stories, too.

If you grow an heirloom crop successively over many years, you can improve the variety by saving seed from individuals that perform above average. In time, you can produce a new variety or strain that may be regionally unique and superior. "Whether they're thinking about it or not, gardeners always save seeds from the nicest plants," said Aaron Whaley of Seed Savers Exchange.

Another boon, of course, is the satisfaction of growing your own fresh food, a luxury that no prince or president can better. Along the way, you have preserved genetic diversity and cultural history without disturbing a single polar bear.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company