Biodiversity is a cornerstone of the food and agriculture system, but it’s increasingly jeopardized by climate change, deforestation, industrialization, and other threats.
But seed saving is an important way of protecting the natural vibrancy and resiliency of the world’s ecosystems. “Seed work is intergenerational work,” Rowen White, the founder of organic seed cooperative Sierra Seeds and a seed keeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, told me on Food Talk Live. “Our legacy is keeping seeds alive and caring for them and cultivating them in meaningful ways, in ways that honor the many layers of culture and spirit and the multitude of connections that we humans have with plants and foods and seeds.”
This week, Food Tank is highlighting 26 organizations around the world protecting our planet’s biodiversity and food security by saving seeds: ASEED Europe, Netherlands; Australian PlantBank, Australia; Botanical Research Institute of Texas, United States; Cherokee Nation Seed Bank, United States; Camino Verde, United States & Peru; Crop Trust, Germany; Federal Research Center All-Russian Institute of Plant Genetic Resources/VIR, Russia; Hawaii Public Seed Initiative, United States; Irish Seed Savers, Ireland; International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia; Louisiana Native Plant Initiative, United States; Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, U.K.; National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Perseveration (NLGRP), United States; Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, United States; Native Seeds/SEARCH, United States; Navdanya, India; New York City Native Plant Conservation Initiative, United States; Pima County Seed Library, United States; Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, United States; SeedChange, Canada; Seed Savers Exchange, United States; Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, United States; Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway; The Germplasm Bank of Wild Species, China; The World Vegetable Center, Taiwan; and Vrihi, India.
Contributing author: Katie Howell
More than 6,000 plant species have been cultivated for food worldwide, but only nine account for the majority of total crop production, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). FAO finds that crop diversity is continuing to decline across the globe because of unsustainable agricultural practices, industrialization, and increased urbanization.
Collecting and organizing genetic diversity as a conservation strategy emerged in the 1960s and now plays an important role in ensuring the world’s collective food security. Seed saving organizations have helped secure over 100,000 seeds during wartime in Syria, preserve 13 million seeds from over 70 species of native trees in the United Kingdom, and contribute to over US$77 million in pastoral agriculture revenue in New Zealand. As the climate crisis continues, seed preservation may also be critical in research and innovation to help farmers adapt to changing conditions.
Seed conservation can occur on-site in farmers’ fields or protected areas, referred to as in situ, or in off-site collections, known as ex situ conservation. Ex situ collections represent the most widespread conservation strategy for plant genetics–it includes seeds kept in cold storage, living plants grown in open field seed banks, or tissue, DNA, embryos, or pollen samples stored in vitro. “Such genebank collections provide a means to make unique biodiversity available cheaply, and effectively, for the long-term,” according to Crop Trust, a leading organization dedicated to conserving crop biodiversity.
According to FAO, there are more than 1,750 ex situ seed banks across the world–both international and local–that preserve over 7 million samples of seeds, cuttings, or genetic material. To celebrate these efforts, Food Tank has selected 26 seed saving organizations working to promote seed diversity through seed banks, exchange networks, and educational programs.
1. ASEED Europe, Netherlands
Action for Solidarity, Equality, Environment, and Diversity (ASEED Europe) aims to achieve social justice and environmental integrity through grassroots organizing, education, and non-violent direct action. Founded in 1991, ASEED Europe organizes international campaigns focused on the decline of biodiversity in agriculture, the availability of seeds, and corporate concentration in the food system. They offer educational materials and training on topics such as seeds, climate change, trade, and food sovereignty.
2. Australian PlantBank, Australia
The Australian PlantBank is the largest native plant conservation seed bank in Australia. Housing over 100 million individual seeds in 10,000 seed collections, it has become one of the world’s most biodiverse seed banks. Located in New South Wales, the PlantBank uses seed banking, cryostorage, and tissue culture for conservation, horticulture, restoration, and research efforts. They also offer educational tours to teach visitors about the important conservation work of scientists.
3. Botanical Research Institute of Texas, United States
Founded in 1987, The Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT)’s mission is to conserve natural heritage by educating the public about the value of plants. BRIT operates the Conservation Seed Laboratory and Seed Bank as a part of their larger Texas Plant Conservation Program. In 2017, BRIT joined the Center of Plant Conservation (CPC) to help Texas organizations protect and preserve rare and endangered native plants. Through community education programs and workshops, research initiatives, and events, BRIT aims to increase awareness about sustainable stewardship and the importance of plant diversity.
4. Cherokee Nation Seed Bank, United States
The Cherokee Nation Seed Bank is maintained by The Cherokee Nation Heirloom Garden and Native Plant Site. The bank collects rare, native plants from the Cherokee regions. Representing centuries of Cherokee history, the Seed Bank provides an opportunity to continue traditions of ancestors, as well as educate youth about the Cherokee Nation’s agricultural past. Seeds may be requested by community members; varieties include heirloom corn, tobacco, and gourds. Additionally, the organization offers educational materials like planting guides to help growers maintain the plants’ genetic integrity.
5. Camino Verde, United States & Peru
Camino Verde is a United States-based nonprofit with locations in Concord, Massachusetts and Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Camino Verde’s mission is to plant trees and encourage future planting through educational programs and public awareness. From 2007 to 2016, Camino Verde worked to establish a Living Seed Bank of over 400 species of trees. With these seeds, they created a restoration forest center, planting over 25,000 trees whose nurseries now produce over 200,000 seedlings each year. The organization also works with farmers and native communities in the Amazon of Peru to help bring back forests to areas degraded by agriculture, gold mining, and ranching.
6. Crop Trust, Germany
The Crop Trust is an international organization whose mission is to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide. Through its Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, the Crop Trust funds the world’s largest genebanks, including the Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research (CGIAR) genebank platform, Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and Seeds for Resilience–a project supporting five seed banks in Sub-Saharan Africa. The organization also works to develop government conservation strategies.
7. Federal Research Center All-Russian Institute of Plant Genetic Resources/VIR, Russia
Located in St. Petersburg, the Federal Research Center All-Russian Institute of Plant Genetic Resources, or the Vavilov Research Institute (VRI), was founded in 1921 and has since expanded into 12 research stations throughout Russia. As the world’s oldest and largest seed bank, they house a total of 60,000 seed varieties and their herbariums contain some 250,000 cultivated plant specimens and their wild relatives.
8. Hawai’i Public Seed Initiative, United States
The Hawai’i Public Seed Initiative (HPSI) was created by The Kohula Center in 2010 and is funded by the Ceres Trust. The initiative works to identify and save seed varieties best suited for the island’s soils and climates. Through community seed networks and workshops, HPSI teaches people to select, grow, harvest, store, and improve seed varieties that can strengthen the state’s food security. HPSI holds events to develop seed leaders across the state, including on Hawai‘i Island, Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui, and Moloka‘i.
9. Irish Seed Savers, Ireland
The Irish Seeds Savers was founded in 1991 in County Carlow, before moving to Scarriff, Ireland. The organization aims to raise public awareness about the vulnerability of Irish agricultural biodiversity. They provide educational workshops to schools and community groups and aim to facilitate conversations between governments, universities, and gene banks. The Irish Seed Savers maintain a public seed bank with over 600 non-commercially available varieties of heirloom and heritage seeds, including rare vegetables, soft fruit, flowers, grains, potatoes, and apple trees.
10. International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia
Headquartered in Colombia, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) is a CGIAR research center focused on promoting agrobiodiversity and sustainable agroecosystems in Africa, Asian, Latin America, and the Caribbean. CIAT conducts crop research with its extensive genebank, which holds the largest global collection of beans, cassava, and tropical forages. CIAT provides seed samples free of charge to any individual or organization anywhere in the world for the purposes of research, breeding, or training.
11. Louisiana Native Plant Initiative, United States
The Louisiana Native Plant Initiative (LNPI) is a multi-agency effort that helps conserve native plants. The National Resource Conservation Service of Louisiana collaborates with their many partners to collect seeds, preserve native varieties, increase flora abundance, and research plant materials for future revegetation projects. The initiative has spearheaded several conservation projects to protect species such as the longleaf pine, switchgrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, smooth cordgrass, eastern gamagrass, and partridge pea.
12. Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst, England
The Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst is a world leader in on-site conservation of wild plant species. The majority of the seed collections in the Seed Bank at Wakehurst are curated by the larger Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, a seed conversation network active in over 80 countries around the world. Currently, there are more than 92,500 seed collections in the bank, which represent over 40,000 species.
13. National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Perseveration (NLGRP), United States
Located on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation (NLGRP) is home to one of the world’s largest plant and animal gene banks. NLGRP’s mission is to support U.S. agriculture in producing high-quality food, feed, and fiber by acquiring, evaluating, preserving, and distributing critical genetic resources. In its plant division, the laboratory manages more than 10,000 plant species in long-term storage and on fields, orchards, and nature reserves.
14. Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, United States
Indigenous Seed Keeper Network (ISKN) is an initiative of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA), a non-profit organization aimed at leveraging resources to support tribal food sovereignty projects. The mission of the Network is to nourish and assist the growing seed sovereignty movement across Turtle Island. ISKN provides educational resources, mentorship training, outreach, and advocacy support on seed policy issues, and organizes convenings to connect communities engaged in this work. Sierra Seeds, a nonprofit sister program to ISKN, also uses mentorship and education to create greater sustainability in food and seed systems by sharing essential practical skills and promoting seed literacy.
15. Native Seeds/SEARCH, United States
Based in Tucson, Arizona, Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) aims to conserve and promote arid-adapted crop diversity in the southwest United States. Since it was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1983, NS/S has established a reputation as a leader in heirloom conservation. Its seed bank holds nearly 2,000 varieties of crops adapted to landscapes extending from southern Colorado to Mexico. These varieties include traditional crops such as corn, beans, and squash used by the Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, Maricopa, Mayo, and many other tribes.
16. Navdanya, India
Navdanya is a research-based initiative founded by Dr. Vandana Shiva, a world-renowned scientist and environmentalist. The organization is a network of seed keepers and organic producers that works across 22 states in India. Navdanya has helped set up over 150 community seed banks over the last 30 years. The organization has conserved and promoted undervalued crops such as millets, pulses, and pseudo-cereals and saved over 4,000 rice varieties. They also conduct research on sustainable farming practices and have provided training to over 750,000 farmers on food and seed sovereignty.
17. New York City Native Plant Conservation Initiative, United States
The New York City Native Plant Conservation Initiative began in 2008 as a partnership between the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In response to declining native plant populations due to increasing urbanization, the initiative works to maximize long-term conservation of diverse native species. Launched with 34 endangered species, conservation efforts include collecting seeds, preparing and implementing protocols for restoration and management of native plant populations, and raising public awareness of the status of native plants in NYC.
18. Pima County Seed Library, United States
The Seed Library is a collection of open-pollinated and heirloom seeds in Pima County, Arizona. The library works to create local seed stocks that are acclimated to desert climate and support an abundant and genetically diverse landscape. The collection helps to support gardeners and educate community members about how to grow, harvest, and save seeds. Made up of almost 250 types of seeds, varieties include beans, flowers, herbs, melons, and more.
19. Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance, United States
The Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance (RMSA) is a nonprofit organization working to create a network of seed growers, distributors, and educators in the Rocky Mountain West region of the United States. Founded in 2014, RMSA emphasizes sharing of seed saving knowledge to preserve and promote the use of regionally adapted crops, herbs, wildflowers, and native grass seeds. To create a more resilient food system, the organization provides seed education resources, runs an online seed school, hosts an international seed festival, operates a regional seed vault, and more.
20. SeedChange, Canada
Formerly USC Canada, SeedChange is working to fight for farmers’ rights to fair wages, land, and seeds around the globe. Through partnerships with nonprofits, they support over 30,000 small-scale farmers to restore degraded lands, share seeds, and start businesses. SeedChange projects are rooted in a Seeds of Survival approach, which emphasizes the importance of local seeds and local knowledge. They support about 70 seed banks run by the communities in which they are located, and hundreds of home seed banks cared for by the farmers in their own homes.
21. Seed Savers Exchange, United States
The Seed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit in Winneshiek County, Iowa that focuses on stewarding and sharing a large collection of open-pollinated seed varieties across the U.S. Founded in 1975, the organization works to ensure the preservation of diverse heirloom seeds to guarantee future food security. Today, Seed Savers Exchange has over 20,000 plant varieties and 13,000 members.
22. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, United States
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, located in central Virginia, is focused on seed varieties that grow well in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern U.S. Operating as a cooperative, the organization offers 800 varieties of vegetable, herb, flower, grain, and cover crop seeds. Sixty percent of their seed varieties are certified organic and over 60 percent of seeds come from small farmers. Some unique Southern heirlooms they offer include peanuts, okra, naturally colored cotton, butterbeans, and roselle.
23. Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway
Opened by the Norwegian government in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the world’s largest secure seed storage facility. Also referred to as the doomsday vault, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault holds duplicates of seed samples from other regional, national, and international gene banks to serve as backup storage in case of emergency. Svalbard has the capacity to house 2.25 billion seeds, equaling 500 seeds of 4.5 million crop varieties. The seed vault is run by the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, Nordic Gene Resource Centre, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. It currently holds seeds of more than 4,000 plant species.
24. The Germplasm Bank of Wild Species, China
Created in 2004, The Germplasm Bank of Wild Species has collected over 80,000 seed samples from over 10,000 species of wild plants. The project is operated by the Kunming Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and includes a seed bank, DNA bank, microbial bank, animal germplasm bank, and seed biology research center. According to one news source, by the end of 2018, the organization’s seed storage accounted for one-third of the total wild plant species nationwide, making it the largest in Asia and the second of its kind globally.
25. The World Vegetable Center, Taiwan
The World Vegetable Center was founded in 1971 as the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center (AVRDC). Today, the Center conducts research, builds networks, and carries out training activities to raise awareness of the role of vegetables for improved health and poverty alleviation around the globe. The Center’s Genebank is the world’s largest vegetable germplasm collection, holding over 61,000 accessions–plant materials collected from different areas–sourced from 155 countries. Since its founding, the Center has distributed more than 600,000 seed samples to researchers in the public and private sectors in at least 180 countries. Their work has led to the release of hundreds of varieties throughout the world, especially in developing countries. The World Vegetable Center Genebank is part of the global germplasm network, Genesys.
26. Vrihi, India
Vrihi, the Sandskrit word for “rice”, was founded by ecologist Dr. Debal Deb and is now the largest folk rice seed bank in Eastern India. In 1997, Vrihi began as a partnership of a nationwide folk crop conservation movement between the Centre of Interdisciplinary Studies (CIS) and Dr. Vandana Shiva’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE). Since 2000, Vrihi has been an independent organization, working to promote the cultivation of folk rice varieties and reestablish non-commercial seed exchange.
(Danielle Nierenberg is President of Food Tank and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She has written extensively on gender and population, the spread of factory farming in the developing world and innovations in sustainable agriculture.)