A Seed for Life

WordsMaria Taylor
Illustration Grace Helmer

These minute Kernels contain much more than the biological coding for a specific species of rare corn or rare banana, they also hold the potential for continued human life.

How valuable are seeds to you? Would you risk your life to save them? Russian botanist and geneticist, Nikolai Vavilov, and his team of scientists believed them to be that valuable. Vavilov dedicated his whole life to collecting all useful cultivated varieties of agricultural plants and by 1940, had established the world's largest seed bank – at the All-Union Institute of Plant Industry – in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). This was no mean feat considering that Vavilov's seed collecting expeditions – to over 50 countries and across five continents – coincided with the Russian civil war, two world wars and civil unrest in many of the countries he visited. His memoirs are peppered with stories of how he literally risked life and limb to obtain these seeds, resulting in his journals reading more like a script for an Indiana Jones movie than a travel diary. He was arrested as a German spy; had to skirt battle lines; travelled across sweltering hot deserts; was abandoned by his guides in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia; became seriously ill when he contracted malaria and then typhus whilst travelling in Ethiopia; was nearly killed when he fell between two cars on a moving train; and so the list goes on.

You may ask why someone would go to such great lengths for a handful of seeds, but Vavilov was a visionary who believed that world hunger and famine could be alleviated by utilising the science of genetics to breed more sustainable crops, and even possibly a super plant that could be grown anywhere in the world. Collecting seeds – more specifically collecting seeds from the wild relatives of crop plants (CWR) – was crucial to this vision. Vavilov believed that these wild ancestors – having evolved over thousands of years and built up a natural resistance to pests, adverse weather and other environmental conditions – could over time produce hardier crops when crossbred with their genetically deprived relations.

Under Lenin's regime, Vavilov's vision was given full scope and Vavilov almost singlehandedly established Russia as world leader within the fields of plant science, genetics, and the study of agricultural biodiversity. He also established himself as one of the world's most original contributors to agricultural geography and plant conservation – knowledge still utilised today. However, under Stalin's regime, Vavilov's adherence to the Mendelian inheritance theory (of genes being passed on unaltered from generation to generation) was not favoured and, consequently, Stalin used Vavilov as a scapegoat for the Russian famine, had him arrested for sabotage, espionage and wrecking, and then sentenced to death. The death sentence was commuted to twenty years in prison in 1941 but in 1943 Vavilov died of starvation in a gulag; a tragic end for someone who had dedicated their life to the feeding of others.

In 1941, German troops surrounded Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and cut off the city believing that it would then fall within weeks from lack of food. The Siege of Leningrad lasted two and a half years with a death toll of over 800,000 people; many dying from starvation, including a number of the Vavilov's scientists. Through a bitter winter, when there was no fuel for heating and temperatures fell to a record low of minus 400 C, these scientists barricaded themselves inside the Institute to protect the seeds. They were not only protecting them from the bombings and from falling into the hands of the Nazis, but also from their own starving citizens and the city's starving mice and rats. In a building filled with food, these scientists chose to die of hunger rather than eat this precious collection, in the belief that the future of humanity depended upon it.

They were not the first to hold such a belief. The collection of seeds was one of the most important rituals of ancient farming with seed banks being found in ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq) dating from as far back as 6750BC. Food sources back then were not guaranteed and the success of harvests and future crops could not be left to capricious weather and the ever-present threat of disease. In this early stage of modern civilization, 'seed banks' were as rudimentary as dry leather pouches hung around the neck with the most essential seeds carefully stored inside. Keeping seeds was vital for the preservation and growth of humankind. By harvesting and propagating specific seeds, our ancestors were able to grow more effective crops that returned a greater yield of more resilient food. As these plants evolved they flourished more easily and we soon followed. The history of agriculture and farming, and therefore seed banks, is a history of civilization.

For people today in the Western world, where food is plentiful, the collecting and storing of seeds may seem more of a hobby than a necessity, and the hardships and sacrifices of Vavilov and the Russian scientists may seem a little extreme, but are they? According to many environmentalists, our demand for easily accessible and constant food supplies, plus crops for such essentials as medicine, clothing, fuel and building supplies, has taken its toll on the planet; so much so, that we may soon be guilty for the mass extinction of the world's flora. We are much to blame for the alarming rate of the planet's decreasing biodiversity through the destruction of natural habitats, pollution and climate change; all of which pose serious threats to the world's ecosystem. Many environmentalists also insist that pursuing the biological criteria that will ensure the greatest amount of food for the littlest effort and smallest price tag is a ticking bomb. On average, there are 7,000 plant species that are used as food crops worldwide, however, only 12 of them account for approximately 80% of world's consumption. Of these, corn, wheat and rice currently account for 43% of all food consumption and, as persistence with monoculture crops continues to make our food genetically vulnerable, there is the potential for whole crops to be wiped out by a single pest or disease. This was the case with the commercially grown sterile banana called the 'Gros Michel' in the 1950s, which became virtually extinct from Panama disease (a soil based fungus). Sadly, this is set to happen again to the Cavendish banana that replaced it. It is the world's most widely traded fruit and it is estimated the financial loss could be as high as £5.3 billion.

The rise in numbers of the human population is a significant contributor to these issues; figures have tripled over the twentieth century with a global population now at 7 billion people. Yet, as much as we humans are to blame for the plight of the world's ecosystems, as the British environmentalist and conservationist pioneer, Norman Myers, stated back in 1990, in his paper, Mass Extinctions: What can the Past Tell Us About the Present and Future? that he wrote for the multidisciplinary journal, Global and Planetary Change, “ironically it is this same species that possesses the unique capacity to stem and even halt the exceptionally destructive tide of extinctions that is washing over the Earth's biotas". And this is exactly what individuals, institutions, national and international agencies have been attempting to do. The realisation that our ancestors, as well as Nikolai Vavilov and his Russian scientists, were right – the future of humanity does depend on seeds – has led to a renewed vigour in the collecting and storing of seeds, because without them we will ensure our own extinction.

Following in the footsteps of Vavilov, who is often referred to today as 'the father of modern seed banks', there are now over 1,400 seed banks around the world, many with government support, with the largest seed banks – both in number and in size – dedicated to collecting crop seeds. Worldwide, many of these independent research centres – where the seed banks are located – receive support and funding from umbrella organisation CGIAR, to enable them to achieve their overall objectives of protecting endangered species and ensuring a backup of seeds in case of a catastrophe; including a renewed campaign for the collecting and conserving of CWR (Crop Wild Relatives). By globally uniting, they are able to pool resources, knowledge, research and technology, and collaborate on policy making, as well as the collecting, sharing and storing of seeds.

BY GLOBALLY UNITING, THEY ARE ABLE TO POOL RESOURCES, KNOWLEDGE, RESEARCH AND TECHNOLOGY, AND COLLABORATE ON POLICY MAKING. MODERN SEED STORAGE IS NOT ONLY A TRIUMPH OF COLLABORATION AND COMMUNITY, BUT ALSO OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY.

Modern seed storage is not only a triumph of collaboration and community, but also of science and technology. Today's storage facilities are a far cry from those of Vavilov's Institute where many of the seeds were stored at room temperature in a multitude of small boxes; this method of storage meant that the seeds had a limited shelf life and the research stations had to regularly plant them so new seeds could be harvested to keep the specimen viable. Today, the majority of the seeds are frozen down in vacuum packs or – similarly to some of Vavilov's seeds – stored in liquid nitrogen. Although this does considerably extend their shelf life, at some point, they will all still need to be planted and new seeds harvested and re-banked to ensure they remain viable.

To be doubly sure that the world has a back up of crop seeds, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – also known as the "doomsday vault" – situated on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, has been designed to hold duplicate copies of all the world's seed collections that are already stored in independent seed banks; effectively a back up of the "back ups". Owned by the Norwegian government and maintained by the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center, this depository now houses more than 800,000 samples donated from seed banks worldwide. The latest edition has been from Japan, after their collections were threatened by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Although it is not without its controversies, the vault does stand as a clear testimony to just how seriously seed collecting, storing and safeguarding has once again become.

But, it's not just crop seeds that are being stored ex situ in seed banks: the seeds from horticultural crops, fruit, berry, and timber trees are also being stored; as are seeds from wild species that are not CWR. The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, consisting of 170 partner institutions from around 80 countries, concerns itself with the world's rare, threatened and useful plant species, many necessary for medicines. The hub is the Kew Gardens Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) at Wakehurst in West Sussex, UK, which stores duplicates from its partner banks. Many of the high priority plants are already extremely rare and the collection of their seeds requires dedicated plant hunters who can end up spending weeks searching for a plant in order to harvest just a few seeds to be sent back to labs. Reminiscent of Vavilov's own expeditions – but hopefully with less drama – these intrepid plant hunters travel to the far flung corners of the earth, and everywhere in between, for rare specimens. At the moment, the MSB Australian partners are concentrating on collecting seeds from dryland species; a category designated as being one of the most at risk. With dusty boots and soil-seamed fingers, these experts scour the Australian outback in a hunt for plants that are part of a dwindling environment. Their journey to collect seeds in this brittle, wildfire prone environment relies heavily upon their understanding of the land and the intrinsic connection that exists between us and the fragile ecosystems in which we have settled. The clinically clean and sterile centres to where they are sent are far removed from the shifting, exposed environments from which the seeds have been extracted, and although many seeds can cope with the transition and process of preservation, some cannot.

Some seeds have to be preserved within their natural habitatand – in order to avoid the very issues that endangered them – this is done in protected areas such as nature reserves, national and natural parks and wetlands. In situ conservation is not as easy to manage as ex situ and botanical gardens worldwide are playing a key role in the conservation of these habitats. They work not only with organisations such as Forestry Commissions but also with neighbouring communities; both to educate them on sustainable plant use and land management, and equally to gain their wisdom, skills and expertise.

In situ seed banks bring us back to the traditional methods employed by our ancestors. These are once again gaining momentum, not just on a global scale but also within local communities – such as the community seed banks that have become part of a national policy in South Africa, or the Navdanya organisation that has established over 100 community seed banks across India. There are also websites now dedicated to teaching anyone and everyone how they can start their own community seed bank. These community seed banks, or seed libraries, are not about long-term preservation but about sharing both seeds and knowledge at a local level. Like their larger counterparts, these seed banks – national and local – work on the principles of seeds and knowledge being freely exchanged and viewed as a shared community resource. Their objective is to protect the diversity of their local seed varieties, and they understand that this can only be achieved as a collaborative effort.

Human civilization was built upon the cultivation of food and medicine, and the future of the global community still unequivocally relies on it now. The depth and breadth of the work dedicated to the enterprise of collection, research, storage and sharing, is a comparable vision of the future; reflecting the foundational significance of plant life and its fundamental position in human life. The same plants and crops that were the key to the survival of our ancestors remain our door to the future.

So, how valuable are seeds to you? Would you risk your life not to save them?