World's Largest Seed Collection Receives a Multimillion Dollar Grant from Gates
A series of multi-million dollar grants have made it possible for few dozen of the world’s major food crops, almost always propagated clonally, to be stored as seed in Norway’s famous Svalbard (also called the “Doomsday Vault” in popular media) facility. Originally opened in 2006, Svalbard is just one of many germplasm repositories of valuable food crop materials. This effort will be among the first to collect seed from such crops on any international scale.
The grants were issued to the Global Crop Diversity Trust foundation, which was created recently in response to the prevailing conditions currently found in many of the world’s seed banks and clonal repositories. In areas such as the Western Asia and Oceania, these “gene libraries” are threatened by disaster, war and poor economies. Many tropical crops are also clonally propagated, lending to the complexity of maintaining plantings and accessions.
Of the over 40 million dollars the foundation received for initial operating funds and endowment monies, the majority was granted by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, known also for such humanitarian efforts as fighting communicable disease in less developed nations. Another 7 million dollars came from the Norwegian government, who was instrumental in creating the Svalbard facility in the first place.
Each and every clone line used in food production horticulture / agriculture, is the exact copy of a single plant. Entire plantations of clonally produced plants, that sometimes cover thousands of hectares, can be wiped out with the introduction of a single virulent pathogen. The bacterial soft rot that caused the Irish Potato Famine is a good example of what can happen when an entire nation relies upon a single (or a few very closely related) clone(s).
The United States, like many other nations, has a network of facilities where clonally propagated horticultural crops are maintained, including a plant quarantine facility on either coast. It maintains more plants than any nation on Earth, yet holds less then a quarter of the varieties to be amassed and maintained. The Svalbard facility has storage space for 3 million accessions inside the island mountain it is carved into.
Converting these clonally produced crops into a “land race” of seed will allow them to be rejuvenated and virus-free without having to initially mess about with growing out and micro-propagating virus-free growing tips (meristems), should those technologies ever become unavailable. Plants that are kept as micro-propagated or field-planted clones must also be very carefully monitored for signs of viral infection and genetic stability.
Also, diversity will be interjected into the crop the crops that currently doesn’t exist. This is especially important in major clonal crops such as banana and potato, which are increasingly attacked by viral infections that threaten production worldwide. Maintaining wild species and threatened cultivars is vital to protecting the gene pool from which our food supply is derived.
Maintenance of such a collection is key. If seeds aren’t replanted on a regular basis, they loose the energy stored within and are unable to germinate properly. Heat and humidity drastically increase the respiration of these dormant seeds, depleting their energy stores at an exponentially higher rate. These will be stored cryogenically, so even very large seeds that respire “quickly” like peas and squash, will only have to be gown out once every generation.
While it is not thought that Svalbard could survive a direct nuclear assault, it does have many advantages that other programmes don’t. A stable government that has been historically been neutral in International relations, Norway is also relatively isolated – this site especially so, out in the North Sea. Because the repository is underground, fluctuations in temperature that could affect the collection if the power ever failed are less of a concern than exist in warm or tropical nations. Nearly 2 million samples will begin cryogenic storage there when construction is complete in late 2007.
That said, being so close to the now demonstrably melting Arctic, the location in an area currently predominated by permafrost may be less stable than the Norwegian government would have hoped when construction began earlier this decade. Areas all over the world that have relied upon permafrost as a type of “arctic bedrock” have found entire hillsides heaving, crating forests of “drunken trees” in Alaska and destroying entire apartment blocks in Siberia. However, researchers remain confident, that at least this part of Norway will remain frozen for some time.
One major function of germplasm repositories is as a response to the severe limiting of crop diversity. The vast majority of crops grown for commercial production in most developed nations represents a very tiny percentage, usually less than 5% of the varieties available even just 100 years ago. Most varieties are recently bred commercial varieties that focus on ship-ability and storage, rather than flavour or adaptability to a particular climate. This is most especially true of fruit and nut trees that are also stored clonally most often.
Another less-well touted benefit of these facilities is their function to provide a back up copy of plants that can be retrieved should genetically modified organisms (GMOs) ever contaminate the wild populations that conventional breeders rely upon to introduce traits into genetic lines. The technology that splices certain novel genes is still rather limited, so the majority of crop improvements still rely upon traditional Mendellian selection.
Moreover, maintaining a selection of varieties that are adapted to various climates and applications encourages local production, which is necessary for a resource poor world. Such a diversified network of production is seen by many as a key component of a future agriculture – one that employs a comparatively low energy input vs. calorie output ratio. The amount of energy required to produce a single calorie has steadily risen with the size of farms. Because of the quick return on investment, most smallholdings are managed to be organic or sustainable in practice. Diverse crops make this task a lot easier.
As the plight of fruit and nut trees becomes more pronounced in coming years, areas of crop cultivation will shift, too. Unless cultivars that are capable of being adapted into modern high-yielding crops can be bred with drought and heat tolerant wild-relatives, nations may find they are no longer able to grow traditional crops without tremendous amounts of water or pesticide inputs.
The endowment of this private fund and the commitment to the World made by the Norwegian government in 2006, should ensure the World’s seed be kept viable and trouble free for the next few hundred years, at least.
Marie Richie is an author and photographer in Oregon. She holds several degrees in science and may be found online at: http://www.sillydogmedia.com/ .
Tags: Agriculture , Science , Gates , Seeds
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