It’s simultaneously one of the most forward-thinking endeavors humans have ever undertaken — and one of the most obscure.
Since 2004, the Crop Trust, an international group based in Germany, has been funding, equipping and coordinating so-called genebanks around the world, which preserve repositories of vast amounts of seeds and the unique genetic material they contain. Yet another copy of all of that diversity is then stored in a vast “doomsday” vault on the remote Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, which tries to back up these collections with additional samples. It stores over 860,000 different varieties of global seeds, according to the Crop Trust, and has room for many, many more.
This entire endeavor — which exists not only to preserve the genetic information needed to create the food we eat, but also to facilitate new plant breeding as the world faces challenges from war, climate change and population growth — has now received a key global endorsement in the form of major new funding. The Crop Trust announced in Washington Friday that the size of its endowment will be doubled to $ 300 million, meaning that half a billion dollars in total has now been invested by governments and the private sector in this endeavor since 2004.
Funds were pledged from groups ranging from the governments of the U.S., the U.K., Germany, India and Ethiopia to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“This is the basis for our morning slice of bread, for our morning coffee, for our afternoon tea,” said Marie Haga, the Crop Trust’s executive director, in a call with the Post discussing the announcement. “Almost all we eat has its origin in seeds, and the diversity of seeds.”
Last September, an unfortunate example of the importance of this mission occurred, when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault had to allow for its first ever withdrawal, thanks to the war in Syria.
The seed withdrawal was requested by a local genebank, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which used to be based in Aleppo, but had moved to Beirut due to the war. In essence, ICARDA had deposited backup seeds in Svalbard but then needed them back as it tried to “restart their collection away from the horrors of the Syrian Civil War,” according to the Crop Trust.
The incident underscores the dual nature of this system: There are “genebanks” around the world that store seeds, like ICARDA. The goal is to be able to restart agricultural systems in the case of disaster — the more global seeds we have, the more genetic diversity can be drawn upon as a resource in the breeding of new plants. And it also doesn’t hurt to preserve a record of the plant evolution that humans have driven over the course of civilization, as well as of wild plant varieties.
But then there’s also the giant Svalbard vault, very deliberately located in an exceedingly remote and resilient location, so if the world melts down in war or some other type of disaster — the Syrian crisis, but on a much larger scale — presumably this last ditch backup will still persist. The vault is “built to survive rising sea levels, power outages and other calamities that could affect the seeds,” says the Crop Trust.
So in sum, the historic withdrawal from Svalbard is evidence of the master plan working just as it is supposed to in the case of disaster — on a country scale, rather than a global one. And it also underscores that you really can never be too careful with the irreplaceable products of biological evolution.
But preserving the diversity of crops isn’t just about staving off calamity; it’s also essential to more immediate planetary goals — fighting hunger, making agriculture more sustainable and adapting it to a changing climate. The United Nations’ new Sustainable Development Goals, unanimously adopted in New York last September, explicitly mention how important it is to back up our supply of crop diversity as part of goal 2: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.”
Under that goal is the following sub-goal:
By 2020, maintain the genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and farmed and domesticated animals and their related wild species, including through soundly managed and diversified seed and plant banks at the national, regional and international levels, and promote access to and fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge, as internationally agreed.
In an interview, Haga explained that perhaps the biggest reason that the quest is now so important is climate change.
“The trouble these days is that the plants that are the basis of our food are not able to adapt as fast as the climate is changing,” Haga said. “And that is why we need to breed new varieties of our major crops that can stand high temperature, a more unpredictable weather, that give high in nutritional value, and this gives better meals. And this is fundamentally challenging. But it can be done, but it’s very hard to see how you can do this without going back to the building blocks of agriculture, this diversity of seeds.”
Haga noted some amazing figures — the world contains about 4 and a half thousand varieties of potato, 35,000 of corn, 125,000 of wheat, and 200,000 of rice, she said. Any one of these varieties could turn out to be of critical importance at some point in the future.
“It might be a wheat plant that has lived up on a mountaintop for many thousand years,” she continued. “This wheat plant might not really look like a wheat, but it is genetically a wheat, and if it has lived up there on the mountaintop for a thousand years, it’s likely that it doesn’t need much water. And one of the things we really need to work on now is plants that can grow and give you good yields and good food without much water.”
Every day, Haga said, breeders are trying to create new plants out of the genetic diversity contained within genebanks. As the planet keeps changing — and there are more and more people to feed — we may be very glad that the world has managed to archive as much of that diversity as it already has.