The concept of a seed bank is a simple one.
It’s a repository of seeds from the world’s plant species that will allow plant breeders to replant the world if climate change, natural disasters, or nuclear war should rain down devastation on the world.
The Millenium Seed Bank in Kew Gardens, in the UK, for example, is aiming to ensure that it has seeds collected in its gene banks for around three-quarters of all the world’s plants currently under threat.
The different plant species will be preserved by storing seeds for future generations.
But can this kind of effort really save the planet?
What Is A Seed Bank?
It is simply a place where heirloom seeds are dried out and then placed into cold storage for their preservation.
Community seed banks are used to bolster crop diversity, food security and for agricultural research facilities.
Whereas projects like the Millennium seed bank are less about maintaining crop diversity and more about creating a gene bank in their seed vault that preserves the genetic material of all species (including wild relatives) so that different species may be replanted in the event of environmental catastrophes.
And don’t worry, you can still order your favorite vegetable seeds online – the plant industry is still thriving for many species.
In fact, if you want to help preserve the world’s crops we strongly recommend you get involved in regenerative gardening.
Introducing The Svalbard Global Seed Vault
The Svalbard vault is another bank and it’s situated in the arctic ocean area so that it can make use of the low temperatures to freeze the seeds of plants before they are lost forever.
However, there’s a problem and while this approach to a “doomsday vault” is definitely valuable if we want crops and other plants to survive eco-disasters, it’s not the catch-all solution that many scientists hoped it would be.
Some Plant Species Are Not Fit For A Seed Bank
And that’s because many of the world’s seeds can’t be dried and frozen. The process destroys the seeds and they are no longer viable for planting after they have been through this.
So, the Global Crop Diversity Trust has labeled mangoes and avocados as species that fit into his category. And outside of the crop trust and its remit, scientists have found many trees such as oaks and horse chestnuts can’t handle these processes either.
These are known as “recalcitrant species” because they can’t survive their seeds being dried and if they are not dried, they cannot be frozen as the water inside them will break through the cell walls and destroy the seed.
It is estimated that 36% of the plants, currently facing the largest risks of extinction, are considered to be recalcitrant!
This means that the scientists at the Millennium seed bank, for example, will not be able to hit their target of freezing three-quarters of threatened species.
There may be another way to preserve these species but it’s a much bigger task than using the current methodologies to preserve seeds but it may be our only way forward.
Can Seed Banks Save The World Or, At Least, Its Plants?
Yes, it’s still possible that the seed banks around the world could save the plants of the world, but it means using a technique known as “cryopreservation”.
This uses liquid nitrogen to flash freeze the seed’s embryo at a temperature of around -196 degrees celsius.
This ensures the integrity of the cell wall and has the added benefit of extending a seed’s life far beyond the current limits.
However, it’s expensive and it would need an international effort far beyond current activities to apply to the world’s seed samples.
Seeds are essential if we want to maintain the genetic diversity of the earth’s plants and ensure that we can recreate the planet’s plants in the event of an environmental disaster.