By saving, exchanging, and re-using seeds over thousands of years, farmers and gardeners carefully selected crops for various traits adapted to many growing conditions and climates, creating a rich genetic plant heritage that formed the base of the global food supply.
Over the last century, however, this agricultural biodiversity has undergone a rapid decline, with many heritage and native plant species being replaced with commercial crop varieties. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost due to the rapid expansion of industrial agriculture and mono culture (single crop) farms. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reports that 60,000 to 100,000 species of plant are currently threatened with extinction.
Revitalising the practice of seed saving is vital for the world’s collective food security. Conservation techniques, such as the creation of seed banks and seed exchanges among farmers, gardeners, and even nations, play an important role in not only preserving ancient, heirloom varieties of important food crops, but also in mitigating against the increasing risks of pests, diseases, and climate change.
The laws and regulations regarding seed saving and exchange practices are changing worldwide. Many farmers groups, nonprofit organizations, and governments are working to conserve and enhance seed diversity through seed banks, exchange networks and cooperatives, and educational programs. Food Tank is highlighting 20 important seed-saving projects across the globe that are helping preserve agricultural biodiversity.
1. ASEED Europe
ASEED Europe (Action for Solidarity, Equality, Environment, and Diversity Europe) is an international campaigning organization focused on the decline of biodiversity in agriculture, the availability of seeds, and corporate concentration in the food system. Established in 1991 by young, engaged citizens committed to social and environmental justice, ASEED Europe campaigns for the preservation of both cultural and biological diversity, and promotes discussion on critical emerging issues in the food system. ASEED also provides educational materials and training on topics such as seeds, climate change, trade, and food sovereignty.
2. AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center
AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center is a nonprofit organization dedicated to alleviating poverty and improving nutrition through extensive research and outreach. AVRDC aims to improve the livelihoods of poor rural and urban households through the creation of more efficient vegetable varieties combined with effective production methods. Now the world’s largest public vegetable germplasm collection, the AVRDC Genebank holds more than 61,000 accessions from 155 countries, including about 12,000 accessions of indigenous vegetables. The AVRDC Vegetable Genetic Resources Information System (AVGRIS) is a database containing information about the germplasm collections.
3. Camino Verde
Camino Verde is a United States-based nonprofit with locations in Concord, Massachusetts, and Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Camino Verde’s mission is to protect and understand biodiversity and indigenous rights through planting trees and providing educational programs for public awareness. The initiative’s Living Seed Bank acts as a botanical garden with more than 250 tree species, protects endangered varieties, and provides an arena for further research into multi-species agroforestry systems. Camino Verde has planted almost 15,000 trees over 75 hectares of land, while preserving 640 hectares of land through conservation partnerships.
4. Hawai’i Public Seed Initiative
The Hawai’i Public Seed Initiative (HPSI), created by The Kohala Center and funded by the Ceres Trust, works with communities, farmers, and gardeners statewide to select, grow, harvest, store, and improve seed varieties that thrive in Hawai‘i. HPSI has held workshops on Hawai‘i Island, Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, and Moloka‘i, bringing together hundreds of farmers and gardeners for education, information sharing, and network building. HPSI works to develop community seed networks and conduct education, research, and outreach programs designed to identify and save seed varieties best suited for Hawai‘i’s soils and climates, providing greater food security for the region.
5. International Center for Tropical Agriculture
The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), a member of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), is dedicated to developing techniques, technologies, and methods to enhance eco-efficiency in agriculture primarily for small farmers in tropical regions. CIAT conducts crop research with its extensive genebank, which holds the largest global collection of beans, cassava, and tropical forages, with more than 67,000 crop samples. CIAT provides seed samples free of charge to any individual or organization anywhere in the world for the purposes of research, breeding, or training, and has so far distributed more than half a million seed samples to more than 160 countries.
6. Irish Seed Savers Association (ISAA)
The ISSA was founded in 1991 and now protects more than 600 non-commercially available varieties of seeds in its seed bank. ISSA locates rare varieties of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and grains and selects varieties suitable for Ireland’s unique growing conditions after conducting extensive research in their gardens. ISSA provides seeds to members and runs workshops to inform and teach individuals how to save seed, increase food self-sufficiency, and encourage greater food security for future generations.
7. Louisiana Native Plant Initiative
The Louisiana Natural Resources Conservation Service began the Louisiana Native Plant Initiative to collect seeds, preserve native varieties, increase flora abundance, and research plant materials for future revegetation projects. Louisiana is home to a plethora of endangered varieties of plants such as the longleaf pine, switchgrass, big bluestem, and partridge pea. The initiative has spearheaded several new conservation projects combining public and private managers in order to release native plants for commercial production.
8. Man and the Biosphere Programme
Launched in 1971 under the supervision of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB Programme) aims to conserve biological resources by improving the relationship between humans and the environment, and researches the effects that human activity and climate change have on the biosphere. Today, with the help of the MAB Programme, there are 669 biosphere reserves categorized in 120 different countries. The MAB Programme promotes the exchange of knowledge on biological and environmental problems and solutions, and utilizes international, regional, and sub-regional partnerships to increase their global intelligence work.
9. Millennium Seed Bank Project, Wakehurst, England
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, started by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, is the largest plant conservation project in the world, and aims to conserve 25 percent of known plant species in the form of seeds by 2020. Focused on conserving seeds from plants that can be used for food production, the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership has saved more than 10 percent of the world’s wild plant species, prioritizing the most threatened species. At present, the bank houses more than 80,000 seed collections, representing more than 37,600 species from more than 330 families.
10. Native Seed / SEARCH
Native Seed / SEARCH (NS/S) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to seed conservation in the Southwest United States and Northwest Mexico. Based in Tucson, Arizona, NS/S has grown to acquire a state-of-the art conservation facility, with more than 1,900 varieties of aridland-adapted seeds, and a reputation as a leader in heirloom conservation. Their seed bank currently houses varieties of traditional crops such as corn, beans, and squash once used by the Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, Maricopa, Mayo, and many other cultures. NS/S aims to maintain the genetic purity of these traditional, wild strands of crops, while also engaging in significant conservation efforts in the Sierra Madre mountain range.
Navdanya is a research-based initiative founded by Dr. Vandana Shiva, a world-renowned scientist and environmentalist. Navdanya, meaning “nine seeds” in Hindi, is a network of seed keepers and organic producers across 18 states in India that have helped set up 122 community seed banks across the country and provided training to more than 500,000 farmers. They also conduct research on sustainable farming practices at their own organic farm in Uttarakhand, North India. Navdanya has collected roughly 5,000 crop varieties, primarily staples such as rice, wheat, millet, kidney beans, and medicinal plants, and also offers courses on biodiversity protection, agroecological practices, water conservation, and more.
12. National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation, Fort Collins, Colorado
The National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation (NCGRP), located on the campus of Colorado State University, is home to one of the world’s largest plant and animal gene banks. The center is unique in that it hosts various types of genetic information including plants, animals, aquatic organisms, insects, and microorganisms. In its plant division, the laboratory manages more than 10,000 plant species in both long-term storage and on fields, orchards, or nature reserves. The NCGR strives to ensure that its seeds maintain their viability for decades to centuries for the long-term preservation of genetic resources.
13. New York City Native Plant Conservation Initiative
In 2008, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation (DPR), in partnership with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG), started the New York City Native Plant Conservation Initiative in an effort to promote and conserve diverse native plant species. Launched with 34 endangered species, the initiative hopes to preserve New York City’s biodiversity and generate awareness surrounding the conservation of urban plant varieties. Activities include collecting seed of NYC native species for seed banking, preparing and implementing protocols for restoration and management of native plant populations, and raising public awareness of the status of native plants in NYC, among others.
14. The Australian Plantbank
The Australian Plantbank, formerly NSW Seedbank, began in 1986 as an initiative to collect wild seeds for the Australian Botanic Garden in Mount Annan. Over the last three decades, the seed bank has grown to save and preserve both common Australian native seeds as well as rare and threatened plant species. As one of the most biodiverse seed banks on the planet, the Australian Plantbank holds more than 10,400 seed collections of many of the 25,000 native Australian plant species. As an educational facility, the Australian PlantBank has been designed so that visitors can experience the “journey of the seed” and learn about the important conservation work of scientists.
15. Seed Savers Exchange
Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. Headquartered in Decorah, Iowa, Seed Savers Exchange began in 1975 and its seed bank is now one of the largest in North America, maintaining a collection of more than 20,000 different varieties of heirloom and open-pollinated plants. Individuals and organizations become members of the seed bank and SSE facilitates communication and exchange of seeds among members. SSE also maintains seed banks at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, as well as at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. SSE also offers services to nonmembers through the sale of more than 600 heirloom varieties.
Seedsave.org is the online home of The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance (RMSA) co-founders Bill McDorman and Belle Starr, who conceived and founded the original Seed School in 2010. As former co-directors of Native Seeds/SEARCH, McDorman and Starr produced nearly two-dozen Seed School and other seed courses nationwide, and graduated more than 900 students from around the world. Their latest initiative, Seed School Online, is the first-ever web-based presentation of the Seed School program, presented through weekly webinars covering topics such as an introduction to genetics, seed selection, harvesting, germination, breeding, and practical applications of seed saving knowledge.
17. Slow Food International
Slow Food International is a movement that began in the mid-1980s to give individuals an alternative to fast food and fast lives. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity was created in 2003 as a subcategory of their Terra Madre initiative to increase and preserve food biodiversity. The Foundation’s Ark of Taste program collects regionally and culturally significant food products to catalogue and promote their global consumption.So far, more than 4,000 products have been catalogued internationally, including the Pampin Mamey Sapote, native to Central America. Slow Food is calling for new legislation on seeds that promotes traditional and heirloom varieties with the effective protection of biodiversity.
18. Svalbard Global Seed Vault
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the doomsday vault, rests approximately 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) south of the North Pole. The vault acts as a sort of insurance policy for other seed banks around the world, only accessing the seeds if the original is destroyed. The Seed Vault can hold up to 2.25 billion seeds in total, equaling 500 seeds of some 4.5 million crop varieties. Priority for space in the vault is given to seeds that can ensure food production and sustainable agriculture, and the collection is primarily composed of seeds from developing countries. The seed vault is managed by the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center.
19. USC Canada
USC Canada, formerly Unitarian Service Committee, works internationally to build resilience through ecological agriculture across five strategic areas: seed security and biodiversity, climate change adaptation and mitigation, rural economies, gender equality, and young farmers. USC Canada’s core program Seeds of Survival (SOS) maintains partnerships in farming communities in 12 countries around the world, promoting crop biodiversity and ensuring a secure source of food and livelihoods for small-scale farmers. USC Canada also developed Seedmap.org, an interactive and comprehensive online tool to explore where agricultural biodiversity originated, where it is threatened, and where different strategies to safeguard it have been developed over the world.
20. Vavilov Research Institute, Russia
Located just behind Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, in St. Petersburg, the Vavilov Research Institute (VRI) was founded in 1921 and has since expanded into 12 research stations throughout Russia. It is the world’s oldest and largest seed bank, housing a combined total of 60,000 seed varieties, and their herbariums contain some 250,000 of cultivated plant specimens and their wild relatives. Specializing in berries and other fruits, the VRI holds more than 5,000 varieties. According to journalist Fred Pearce, nearly 90 percent of these seed and plant specimens are not found in any other research collection or seed bank in the world.
(Danielle Nierenberg is the President of Food Think Tank <firstname.lastname@example.org>)