Banks For Our Liveable Future
No, I'm not talking about the financial kind.
I’ve been conducting full-day trainings most of this week which is why the newsletter is later than usual. For this issue, I’m going to focus on seed banks because of the stories about Ukraine’s one and only seed bank.
What about it?
The National Gene Bank of Plants of Ukrain was founded in 1908 and based in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine. It is the country’s second-largest city and one of the worst-affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
At the beginning of 2021, the seed bank, the tenth largest in the world, had more than 150,000 specimens belonging to 544 crops and 1,802 species of plants but only 4% were backed up in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (pictured).
The Odessa Journal wrote a short news item on May 16 that invaders destroyed it, citing an announcement by the institute’s lead researcher Sergey Avramenko on his private YouTube channel.
On May 19, Kyiv Post provided a touch more detail, and said it was “nearly destroyed” by Russian shelling. I haven’t been able to find the video as it is set to private.
Later articles, by The Economist (May 25) and Reuters (Jun 1) further clarified that it was only a research facility that was damaged, not the whole seed bank. This Newsweek Fact Check piece is a handy guide.
These updates are very welcome but it doesn’t mean the site or the genetic resources so crucial for growing our food are now safe. Both are still at risk.
What’s a seed bank?
These are physical buildings that house seeds, but usually in dehydrated or frozen form inside freezers or vaults that are set to sub-zero temperatures.
In more developed countries, they are stored in vaults that are underground and/or protected from natural disasters, military attacks and nuclear war. The objective is to both archive and preserve crop biodiversity.
The world used to cultivate around 7,000 different plants but experts say we now get about 60% of our calories from three main crops - maize, wheat and rice.
Which is why seed banks are crucial - they provide us with crucial back-ups for when storms, bombs, pests and other threats wipe out entire crops and research material for scientists to come up with crops that are resilient to increasingly hostile weather patterns.
There are more than 1,700 seed banks - also called gene banks - around the world and these can range from small national collections in a nondescript building to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the epitome of cool (literally) built 120 metres into the rock face on a remote island above the Arctic Circle, where polar bears roam.
Yes. Wow. I feel extremely fortunate to have visited this Arctic seed bank, which now holds more than a million seed samples from the world’s gene banks, in 2018, on the 10th anniversary of its opening.
"Our food system is extremely vulnerable. We are basing ourselves now on 12 plants and five animal species for 75 percent of the food we eat." - Marie Haga.
She’s a former Norwegian politician who was serving then as the executive director of The Crop Trust, an international group that co-runs the vault.
This is a story I wrote about the trip and below is a video of the seed bank as well as the bunker where the seeds are held and temperature is a permanent -18 degrees Celsius.
The Svalbard archipelago, the furthest north reachable on a scheduled flight, was chosen for the vault's location because it is remote, there are no volcanoes or earthquakes, and the permafrost keeps the seeds in deep-freeze.
Yet an unexpected thaw of permafrost due to rising temperatures in the Arctic meant water flowed into the entrance of the vault's tunnel in late 2016. The seeds were not in danger, but Norway later spent $11 million to upgrade the vault.
A word about In Situ versus Ex Situ Conservation
Ok, more than a word. This essentially means conservation ‘in place’ (in situ) and ‘out of place’ (ex situ).
An in situ approach is like keeping crops in their natural habitat like a farmer’ fields or in the wild, allowing them to adapt to changing conditions of the soil, temperature, humidity, etc.
An ex situ approach is collecting and storing these crops, mostly in the forms of seeds, in gene banks like the ones in Svalbard and Ukraine.
There are debates over which approach is better but I believe we need both to preserve threatened species. We humans have been relentless in our destruction of ecosystems, either as a result of war or pure greed. In those cases, we don’t have a choice but to conserve crop biodiversity in the deep freeze.
But when we can, we should encourage the conservation and care of crop wild relatives - cousins of the food crops we now eat but are still growing in nature - because they can form part of the answer to creating more resilient crops.
Here are two articles I’ve written in the past about these cousins.
One is about wild rice growing in northern Australia’s crocodile-infested waters that could hold the key to breeding a more nutritious grain that is drought and pest resistant and the other is about wild varieties of chickpeas found only in southeastern Turkey near the border with Syria that could prevent our beloved legume from going extinct.
Threats are looming larger and larger
With the latest news of Ukraine’s gene bank, I am reminded once again that both climate pressures and conflicts are threatening our ability to produce food, and we need to do everything we can to preserve our crop biodiversity.
We have already lost 75% of crop diversity between 1900 and 2000, according to FAO, the UN food and agri agency. As much as 22% of the wild relatives of important food crops of peanut, potato and beans will disappear by 2055 because of a changing climate, it warned more than a decade ago.
So it is even more important that we take care of whatever diversity we are left with.
But I also vividly remember heartwarming moments from my Svalbard trip.
In October 2015, Morocco's International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) became the first to withdraw seeds from Svalbard after Syria's civil war had damaged a seed bank near the city of Aleppo.
The gene bank was relocated to Morocco and Lebanon. In Feb 2018, when I was there, Ahmed Amri from ICARDA was there too, because the seeds have been grown, and he was re-depositing more than 8,600 seed samples.
So when Ahmed stepped up to take the box with the seeds and entered the building, you can hear the cheers from the crowd and the emotion on Ahmed’s face. I definitely had a lump in my throat.
I hope we will one day see a thriving and safe gene bank again in Ukraine.
As always, have a great weekend! Please feel free to share this post and send tips and thoughts on twitter @thinink, to my LinkedIn page or via e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I haven't thought about the issues surrounding seeds that you brought up in the article - very important!
I don’t understand why the seeds were redeposited? Is it because Syria had lost their gene bank and consequently their seeds too so they have return back the seeds they had borrowed from ICARD?