No, seeds banks are not mainly located in Switzerland, and they were also not involved in the recent financial crisis. Instead, they are an insurance against the loss of agricultural biodiversity – a vital step when we consider the developments in the industrialization of agriculture in the last 100 years. The FAO estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity was lost between 1900 and 2000 – through globalization, the scaling up of retail and specialization in consumer preferences, the introduction and widespread adoption of new varieties that edged out local crops, and other factors. In addition, climatic changes could lead to a loss of up to 22% of the wild varieties of important staple crops such as peanuts, potatoes and beans until 2055. While precise figures are impossible to collect, it is estimated that there were as many as 100,000 varieties of rice a century ago in India, whereas now there only exist a few thousand; in the US, apple varieties decreased from around 5,000 to a couple of hundred.
Why is crop biodiversity important? Well, with each variety, you lose genetic material that has been adapted to the particular local circumstances, and could be vital in the future to adapt crops to more resistance to heat, drought, salinity, pest and diseases – on the flipside, if only one particular variety is planted over an extended region, a single pest or disease can have enormous consequences on the yield and lead to shortages and, in the worst case, famine.
This is why since the 1970s there has been a race to document and preserve crop varieties while they are still used, in particular through the establishment of seed banks. According to the FAO, in 2010 there were 1,750 seed banks worldwide, and around 130 of them hold more than 10,000 accessions. The crown jewel, of course, is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which was opened in Norway in 2008.
The Vault is located on a Norwegian island near the town of Longyearbyen, one of the most northern habitats in the world. It is constantly maintained at a temperature of –18 degrees Celsius, and due to its location – 160 metres into the permafrost – would probably take two centuries to warm to freezing point in a case of power outage. Plus, its tunnel head has a concave design in order to deflect a missile strike. It’s supposed to act as a global backup for national and local seed banks, and with good reason – the seed banks of the Philippines, Iraq and Afghanistan have already been destroyed through accidents and/or conflict. The Economist has a fascinating piece on Svalbard if you are interested in more details.
However, part of the preservation of crop diversity is also its constant use and development, for which local initiatives are just as important – as for example the seed library in Basalt, Western Colorado, where a local public library distributes not only books, CDs and DVDs, but also packets of seeds which you return at the end of the harvesting season with the seeds of your own biggest and best fruits and vegetables. According to the American Library Association, there are around a dozen such programs in the US, and they have also spread to the United Kingdom.
Still, the maintenance of our crop diversity will remain a struggle, which in my opinion can only be addressed through the collaboration of individuals, governments and the global community and through the diversification of our food production systems.
For more information, the FAO launched a report on the State of the World’s Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2010 – here is the executive summary.