Seeds provide half the calories consumed by people today, and they have also helped humans to evolve. In essence, the seeds of annual cereals such as rice, wheat and maize underpinned the rise of civilisation. Once people realised they could control their food supply by farming, human societies began to settle and grow. Over subsequent millennia, farmers retained seeds from plants with higher yield and more pleasant taste, and the art of domestication and reeding commenced. Seed banks have a significant role in safeguarding the conservation of plant genetic diversity on which our food security rests. This article describes some of the activities of the Australian Seed Bank Partnership.
Modern crop species are the result of sophisticated programs of breeding and genetic improvement designed to meet the needs of large-scale agriculture. Many of these crop species are now sown as monocultures and as such are at risk of succumbing to stresses such as changing climates and pests or diseases. Resilience is stronger when there is a diversity of plants rather than a monoculture. The old ‘landraces’ (traditionally or locally adapted) and wild varieties of these new cultivars are therefore vitally important as they represent the genetic diversity necessary to develop new resistant cultivars, helping to provide resilience to emerging risks. Saving seeds is even more important now than it was generations ago. The world’s population is forecast to rise to close to 10 billion by 2050, our farming land and our natural environments are under intense pressure, and the climate of the world is changing. Consequently, conserving seeds in banks is crucial to our future wellbeing.
One of the first true ‘seed banks’ was set up in 1926 in St Petersburg, Russia, by botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov. In principle, seed banking is straightforward and relies on the seeds of most (about 90%) seed-bearing plant species surviving air-drying and then freezing, which extends the longevity of these so-called ‘orthodox’ seeds in predictable ways. Since the 1960s, government agencies, international organisations, NGOs, and private philanthropies have invested heavily in the creation of seed banks. For example, halfway between the mainland of Norway and the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. Deep in the permafrost – although a changing climate affects even permafrost – seeds from the crop species from around the globe are stored as the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply. Also in the northern hemisphere, the Millennium Seed Bank at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (Wakehurst Place) holds the largest and most diverse wild plant species genetic resource in the world, mostly seed contributed by a global network of seed banks. These collections serve as permanent repositories for the world’s vast genetic diversity in food crops and, increasingly, its diversity in wild plants.
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