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Seed Banks - Safeguarding Biodiversity | A Photo-Essay

Take a look inside the seed banks protecting the world’s biodiversity and safeguarding our future.

Humans once ate a multitude of plant varieties, with up to 6000 species being consumed over the course of our history. Today, just three species — rice, wheat and maize — provide 50 per cent of the world's calories. Meanwhile, the seeds that our food comes from are mostly produced by just four corporations; creating a uniformity in our diet like never before. These companies focus on productivity, standardisation, and uniformity rather than diversity. But relying on just a small number of seed varieties and crop species makes our food system vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as droughts or unpredictable weather patterns, as well as problems brought by pests and diseases. The failure of one key crop can have disastrous consequences.

In the early 20th century, scientist and explorer Nikolai Vavilov was one of the first to identify the connection between plant diversity and food security. During the 1920s and 1930s, he travelled the world and collected over 150,000 seed samples, which were then stored at an institute in St Petersburg—the world’s first seed bank, now known as the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry.

1931-London, England: Left to right: Professor Nikolai Vavilov (Botanist)), A. F. Joffe (Physicist), and Nicholas Bukharin in London to attend the Congress of the History of Science.

Left to right: Professor Nikolai Vavilov (Botanist)), A. F. Joffe (Physicist), and Nicholas Bukharin in London to attend the Congress of the History of Science. 1931, London, England

Today, Vavilov’s insights are more important than ever, and there are now more than 1000 seed banks worldwide, varying in type, size, and focus. They aim to safeguard the planet’s variety; around the world, it is estimated that 40% of plant species are vulnerable to extinction thanks to habitat loss, climate change, pollution, pests and diseases. Our future is also at stake — with a changing global climate, many believe the key to food resilience and security lies in preserving biodiversity. Seed banks are an insurance policy for the future; a global backup plan.

Seed banks store seeds at low humidity and cold conditions to preserve them in a state of dormancy and ensure they can be used to grow if needed. Many are extremely secure vaults built to withstand extreme events, including flooding, explosions and radiation. The Svalbard Seed Bank, for example, lies at the end of a tunnel cut 135 metres deep into a mountain, while the Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex is built from thick reinforced concrete walls strong enough to withstand the impact of a plane crash and last at least 500 years.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Longyearbyen, Norway

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is an internationally-funded repository for storing seeds from plants from across the globe. Constructed deep into the mountain, the compound stores seeds at -18 degrees Celsius as a measure to protect the seeds and provide insurance against any catastrophic loss of crop diversity held in traditional genebanks around the world.

Water trickles down a hillside among moss next to the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault during a summer heat wave. Global warming is having a dramatic impact on Svalbard (which lies approximately 1,200km north of the Arctic Circle) that, according to Norwegian meteorological data, includes a rise in average winter temperatures of 10 degrees Celsius over the past 30 years, creating disruptions to the entire local ecosystem. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, largest seed bank in the world near Longyearbyen on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, largest seed bank in the world near Longyearbyen on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen.

Entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, largest seed bank in the world near Longyearbyen on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. (Photo by: Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Southwest China Germplasm Bank Of Wild Species, Kunming, China

The Southwest China Germplasm Bank of Wild Species (GBOWS) was established by the Kunming Institute of Botany (KIB) under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Kunming, Yunnan Province of China. Southwest China’s GBOWS collects seeds of endangered plant species from both in and outside of China, thus earning a reputation as the "Noah's Ark Of Seeds".

A Chinese researcher checks the specimen of plant seeds (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images)

A Chinese researcher checks the specimen of plant seeds (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images)

A Chinese researcher checks the specimen of plant seeds (left) and pteridophyte (right). (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images)



Kew Millennium Seed Bank, Haywards Heath, England

After 20 years of collecting and preserving seeds in the name of conservation and safeguarding biodiversity, the seed bank has collected around 16% of the world’s seed-bearing plants and holds nearly all of the UK’s native plant species. The bank is the largest wild seed bank in the world, holding 2.4 billion seeds from around the world in its vaults, storing them at -20 degrees Celsius to preserve them for hundreds of years.

Jo Walmisley, a Higher Botanical Horticulturist, examines the plants in the wet, tropical glasshouse at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Jo Walmisley, a Higher Botanical Horticulturist, examines the plants in the wet, tropical glasshouse at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Anne Cochrane, a Senior Research Scientist, examines her germinating seeds in petri-dishes in the germination area of Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Sarah Gattiker stores the 24,200th species of seed in the vault at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, which now holds 10 percent of the world's wild plant species, at Wakehurst Place on October 15, 2009 near Haywards Heath, Sussex, England. The 24,200th seed species is a pink, wild banana from China which is an important staple for wild Asian elephants. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Bryony Phillips examines the plants in the dry, tropical glasshouse at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Catalogued seeds are dried in bags prior to storage at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Catalogued seeds are dried in bags prior to storage at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

The Future Seeds gene bank, Palmira, Colombia

More than 3,000 seed types are processed, selected and preserved at the Future Seeds gene bank managed by CGIAR's Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). These are distributed throughout various parts of the world to maintain humanity's food security for generations to come.

A scientist examines seeds in a cold room at 20 degrees below zero, where seeds preserved from 1998 to date our found, March 18, 2022. (Photo by Edwin Rodriguez Pipicano/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)



The Potato Park, Sacred Valley of the Incas near Pisac, Peru

The Potato Park is a unique seed bank located in the Sacred Valley of the Incas near Pisac, an hour's drive northeast of the tourist city of Cusco. It is the central point of the Andean highlands and a Mecca for potato growers. The area houses the richest diversity of potatoes on the planet, with over 1,400 native types of all shapes, sizes, textures, colours and flavours. It also preserves the ancient Inca tradition and philosophy of cultivating tubers. Quechua farmers continue to plant in terraces divided into vertical levels with different altitudes (from 3,400 to 4,900 meters) to guarantee the biodiversity of potatoes, maize, beans and quinoa. It is run by six local communities of nearly 7,000 villagers, including the Papa Arariwa, also called the ‘Guardians of the Potato’. As climate change threatens and soil degradation intensifies, The Potato Park is key in ensuring crop resilience.

Aerial view of potato plots and the Laguna Azul (Blue Lagoon). (Photo by Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images)

Aerial view of potato plots and the Laguna Azul (Blue Lagoon). (Photo by Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images)

Farmer Marco Pacco smiles for the picture holding a purple potato usually used by food companies to produce snacks.

Farmer Marco Pacco smiles for the picture holding a purple potato usually used by food companies to produce snacks. (Photo by Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images)

44-year-old farmer Justina Chipa works on the selection and classification of potatoes after the harvest on June 21, 2022 in Pisac, Peru. Potatoes can be used as seeds for next crops or to produce chuño and moraya, traditional Andean ways to keep potatoes durable for years. (Photo by Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images)

44-year-old farmer Justina Chipa works on the selection and classification of potatoes after the harvest on June 21, 2022 in Pisac, Peru.

A farmer holds papa roja (red potato), huayro, garra de puma (cougar claw), Papa Amarilla Doblada (folded yellow potato), papa morada (purple potato) and papa amarga (bitter potato). (Photo by Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images)

A farmer holds papa roja (red potato), huayro, garra de puma (cougar claw), Papa Amarilla Doblada (folded yellow potato), papa morada (purple potato) and papa amarga (bitter potato). (Photo by Leonardo Fernandez/Getty Images)




International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

After the seed bank was evacuated from Aleppo, Syria, in 2015, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) is housed in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, where the facilities include growing fields, a laboratory, nurseries, and a gene bank of thousands of catalogued seeds. 

Crops of wheat and barley managed by ICARDA in Terbol village. (Photos by Marwan Tahtah/Getty images)

Cross breeding of chickpeas by ICRDA staff in Terbol village on May 10, 2022. (Photo by Marwan Tahtah/Getty images)

MR. Hassan Machlab, the country manager of ICARDA in Lebanon. (Photo by Marwan Tahtah/Getty images)

The Vavilov Plant Industry Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia

The Vavilov Institute is the storehouse of seeds gathered by geneticist Nokolai Vavilov, who roamed Africa, Asia and Latin America in the early part of the 20th century to establish one of the world's largest collections of genetic plant stock. Between 1901 and 2017, the collection has grown from 301 accessions to over 330,000.

Scientists working in the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry which researches vegetal genetics and seed conservation. (Photo by Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images)

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