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Doomsday Vault or Genetic Diversity?: Saving Seeds to Save Humanity

By Claire Hope Cummings

Svalbald Global Seed Vault
Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photo credit: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale frøhvelv

The flooding of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault comes as a warning. Although the seeds are safe for now, this close call should caution us not to assume we can control and predict the natural world.

Climate change, natural disasters, and social unrest are ever-present threats to seeds. The best response is to take action on two fronts: globally, as the Svalbard Seed Vault is doing; and regionally, by supporting traditional plant breeding on farms and by local seed banks, as well as conserving natural areas that protect plants. These places are where seeded plants thrive and adapt while seed collections can only save a small fraction of the plant world’s genetic material. I’m concerned that an over-reliance on modern technology, coupled with a fear-based “doomsday” mentality, distracts us from the more essential and everyday work of protecting genetic diversity as part of a living system. Technology and innovation have a role. But we don’t have to choose one over the other.

Saving seeds, and our larger responsibility to protecting biological diversity, depends on maintaining the age-old relationship between people, plants, and place. The key is seeing seeds as an essential part of our shared ecological reality and not just as an economic commodity. Seeds are the common heritage of all humanity. They can provide us with common cause with each other and the natural world because their plight is intimately tied into our own.


Uncertain PerilEditor’s note: The following excerpt comes from Claire Hope Cummings’s Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds. Cummings argues for striking a balance between storing seeds in vaults and allowing farmers to take an active role in seed-saving strategies. Since this passage was written, the trend toward seeing seeds as an economic, rather than an ecological, value is going in the wrong direction. Consolidation of ownership by corporations has tightened. Now, according to the ETC Group, just six agrochemical corporations control the globe market for industrial seeds.

All the material needed to propagate the world’s most important agricultural plants has already been collected and is being stored in large and small seed banks scattered all over the world. Some of these seeds are poorly stored in paper bags and jars put on dusty shelves, and some of them are vacuum-packed in foil bags and carefully arranged in state-of-the-art freezers. There are small, local, independent seed collections that serve farmers and traditional breeders, but in general the seeds that are stored in the big seed banks are not local seeds. Most seed banks store material that came from elsewhere, particularly the third world. The traditional farmers who developed our main agricultural crop plants have been engaged in what sociologist Jack Kloppenburg calls “a massive program of foreign aid.” They have donated their seeds, by choice or by expropriation, to governments, quasi-public seed banks, and corporations, which then transform them into their own highly valued property but do not share the benefits gained from these seeds with the people whose skill and knowledge originally developed them.

There are about 1,400 seed banks in the world. And although there has been an explosion in the number of seed banks, they aren’t necessarily saving any more kinds of seeds. What they’re saving is mostly duplicates of each other’s seeds. In the 1970s there was only a handful of long-term seed-saving facilities in the world. Then collectors went on a worldwide binge, and by 1985 gene banks in 72 countries were holding 2.5 million accessions, or separate samples. By 1996, collections in 137 countries were holding 6.2 million accessions. Fowler calls this “gene inflation,” and he says it’s a real headache, because seed banks are just “trading samples back and forth with each other in a totally uncoordinated and basically unknown way” and creating a lot of “unintended duplication.” There are actually only about 2 million unique seed samples in seed banks, but the rest are millions and millions of accessions.

Each collection is like a snapshot of the plants collected at any one time. It cannot possibly represent all possible variations of a plant variety, so what is selected immediately narrows the amount of germplasm that gets saved. Many collections store only what was gathered in the last forty or fifty years and thus are limited to what was collectible during that time. That’s how the collections are formed. The other half of the story is what happens to a seed once it is deposited in a seed bank. Each sample—a seed, a leaf, or a stem—also has to survive the process of collection, repeated handling, transporting, and storage. These are all living things, so they are easily damaged and they age and die. All material kept in seed banks has to be constantly regrown, its life renewed. All collections regenerate their germplasm according to their own standards.

Serious problems can arise when a bank’s samples are regenerated, which is usually done in the open air. At that time the plants are vulnerable to contamination, from any pathogens in the area, from cross-pollination, and from exposure to GMOs. Available growing areas are extremely limited, as are budgets. Sometimes even the most obvious precautions are ignored. In the case of the world’s largest collection of peas, which is housed in a gene bank in Germany, the Munich Environmental Institute reported in 2007 that several hundred samples were being grown out in an open field, only 500 meters from a field that was being used to test transgenic potatoes containing a cholera bacterium and a rabbit virus. These crops ordinarily would not mix, but why take chances, given how little we really know about gene flow?

There have been unconfirmed reports that some CGIAR collections are contaminated with GMOs. The curators deny it, but it may be only a matter of time. The ETC Group watches CGIAR carefully and reports that it has been “huddling with the biotech industry” to craft a policy response to GMO contamination, which the industry refers to as “adventitious presence,” as if it were unavoidable.

Inside, seed banks aren’t very complicated. They all basically use cold storage in one form or another. The Doomsday Vault is just one very big freezer. The complexity enters in when it comes to cataloging the collection and devising information systems that provide access and research data. Two of the most important functions of a seed bank are to describe what’s in the collection and to figure out how to retrieve that material and make it useful. The human element comes in when managers and plant experts make decisions about what gets preserved and why. This is where ex-situ seed banks (“ex situ” is the term used for seed banks and collections where reproductive plant material is kept in storage, out of its natural context) cross the line from being conservation-oriented to becoming economic institutions. They are called banks, after all.

Not everyone thinks that ex-situ collections are the best way to save plant germplasm. Many botanists, farmers, and environmentalists want to see plants preserved where they grow, and they want more attention and support for in-situ seed saving, where plants are preserved in their natural habitat or on farms and in gardens. Some nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are working to protect the rights of small farmers and that want to keep plant breeding public, are critical of ex-situ seed banks. They’re concerned about the impact that international trade, intellectual property rights, and international aid strategies are having on local seed saving.

In-situ strategies save plants in the places where they grow best. These efforts can conserve more diversity than gene banks for several reasons. Gene banks tend to focus only on what can be stored. Living collections can grow more kinds of plants as well as their wild and weedy relatives. Local seed saving can tap into local knowledge of little-known and rare varieties. These place-based collections are better tuned into the needs of traditional farmers and tend to specialize in culturally significant plants. Some plant breeders have suggested that in-situ collections do not make their germplasm available to breeders and it’s difficult to find out what they have in their collections. Others point out that these collections are more vulnerable to environmental and political changes than seed banks and that just because they are in situ does not mean they’re free of government or corporate predation.

The difference is that for in-situ collections, the seeds themselves are the primary value. In seed banks, more value is placed on the usefulness and retrievability of what is in the collection. Seed banking is expensive and not necessarily reliable, so very few seed banks can afford to concentrate on saving what exists for its own sake. Saving something that needs to be saved, or just because it is threatened, is rare. Few major seed banks still take in much wild seed. The one world-class seed bank that saves wild seed is the UK’s Millennium Seed Bank, which just added its billionth seed, an African bamboo from Mali.

Critics of the Doomsday Vault say that all the millions being spent on it and all the money directed at ex-situ seed banking should be directed toward preserving in-situ collections and that more funding should go toward protecting seed saving by traditional farmers. In the long run, in-situ strategies are the most cost-effective way to save diversity. For thousands of years—in fact, right up to the mid-twentieth century—seeds didn’t need to be “saved” by institutions. The rise of seed banks has occurred at the same time that the role of the farmer has been compromised and corporations have taken over plant breeding. The concentration of ownership of seeds in private hands is part of the reason in-situ seed saving is in trouble.

The choice of which strategy to support, in situ or ex situ, turns on whether you want to support the economic or the ecological values of seeds. Deciding between the two often depends on whether you see the world as a marketplace or as a community. Fortunately, we really don’t have to choose. The world can afford to do both, at least in theory. The problem arises in the choosing. In practice, big seed banks siphon funding, expertise, and public attention away from other, equally important seed conservation strategies. They often claim the moral high ground and operate in ways that discourage farm seed saving. When they position themselves in such a way as to say that they, and not farmers, are the “best” seed savers, then they are forcing funders to choose them over the farmers. This is the mentality of scarcity, and it is a false choice, as all scarcity strategies are. Both methods of preservation can be useful. However, both need to reemphasize the public interest. The rise of seed banking and the demise of the small farmer have turned agricultural seed saving on its head. The solution lies in putting the farmer, instead of agribusiness, back on top as the primary actor and beneficiary of all seed-saving strategies.


About the Author 

Claire Hope CummingsClaire Hope Cummings is an environmental journalist specializing in stories about the environmental, health, and political implications of how we eat. For six years she produced and hosted a popular weekly public radio show on food and farming in Northern California, including a news segment called “Eater’s Digest.” She regularly reports on agriculture and the environment for public television in San Francisco. Cummings also writes for periodicals, webzines, and news services. She was an environmental lawyer for twenty years, including four years with the United States Department of Agriculture, then practiced environmental and cultural preservation public interest law. She has farmed in California and in Vietnam. She was a 2001 Food and Society Policy Fellow. Cummings lives in a rural area of Marin County, California. Visit Claire Hope Cummings’s website at