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what are seed banks

What are seed banks

Credit: Kew Gardens

Think of a seed bank as a form of insurance, a way of maximising the number of plant species we can save from extinction. This is more essential now than ever before. Globally it’s estimated that one in five plant species are threatened with extinction.
Millennium Seed Bank

A seed bank is a vault kept at low humidity and cold conditions, around -20°C. In these vaults are jars filled with seeds from different plant species. Numbers and amounts vary from one seed bank to another. The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is the world’s largest seed bank project – at the time of writing the MSB held 2,200,964,170 seeds from 37,614 species, collected from 189 countries!
Many different projects contribute to the seed bank and we are one of the partners contributing to the UK National Tree Seed Project. This project was set up by Kew to protect our native tree species from extinction, and is generously funded by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery and supported by volunteers.
Projects, volunteers and experts all over the world are out in the field collecting seeds and then paying them into the banks. The seed banks follow rigorous collection criteria to make sure the best seeds are collected and stored at the bank.
Plants are under threat from many factors:
Citizen science project officer

When most people think about banks and saving for the future they think of finances. But if the future is going to be as rich as we are today, we need to broaden our horizons, and consider saving for the future in a whole new light. The Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) is doing just that.

Think of the seed bank as a form of insurance policy. It stores the genetics of our crops, plants and trees and safeguards them from extinction.

What are seed banks

As of this writing, it’s only been two months since planting, so it is too soon to tell what effect the wave of donated seeds will have. Initial results of baby lettuce and 6-inch zucchini harvests are promising. If planting had occurred days after the hurricane with regional seed varieties, then harvest would be earlier and yields may be higher. However, on-island seeds were unavailable to growers.

Protecting our seed supply is the same as protecting our food supply. Credit: M Pings.
In the United States, our grocery store produce sections are full of “exotic” fruits and vegetables. But, most of these are not grown in the U.S. We benefit from agriculture worldwide. The coffee you drink in the morning is not “made in the USA.” But, worldwide markets do not have the wide variety of produce that we enjoy. In addition, some diets are driven by cultural practice. In the US, we may enjoy going to an ethnic restaurant – remember the food we get there is driven by their unique cultures.

There was a clear need for seeds for Puerto Rican growers following Hurricane Maria. The University of Puerto Rico extension service responded by efficiently distributing an estimated 8,000 pounds of donated seed. The seeds went to small-scale farms, community gardens and individuals across the entire island. From mid-December through the start of the New Year, extension agents distributed seeds. This was despite many extension offices lacking phone and regular electric service! Within weeks of receiving seeds, growers were selling seedlings and microgreens. Home gardeners, retirees and school children, in addition to career growers, all received donated seeds to jump start their produce production on the island.
An example of unique adaptation is crop evolution on many of the Caribbean islands. The islands are relatively isolated, so plants have fewer opportunities to naturally cross with other plants. The Caribbean also enjoys a full-year growing season. These island crop varieties are uniquely adapted to the region’s growing conditions. Caribbean cultural practices have value for improving island agriculture and preserving cultural heritage through food. Storing seeds of island varieties in seed banks will help to preserve these unique foods for future generations to enjoy and share.

  1. Improve resistance to current and emerging plant diseases and insects.
  2. Provide drought or flood tolerance.
  3. Improve yields and nutrition to feed a growing global population.

Donated seeds go to help locals and farmers re-start their gardens and farms. Photo courtesy Sarah Dohle.
An example of this is the effects of Hurricane Maria. On September 20, 2017, Maria caused severe crop loss in Puerto Rico. The loss of production crops from hurricanes is an immediate problem for food and economic security. Replacing crops quickly – once conditions for growing are safe – is an important goal in island recovery. And, having access to viable seeds ready to cultivate immediately is part of this recovery.

Seed banks also allow for faster recovery from an environmental or natural disaster that can strike in an instant. It seems as if almost every day we hear about oil spills, wild fires, hurricanes, earthquakes and flooding. These events can lead to huge losses of plant life quickly.

Species extinction due to natural and man-made influences is undeniable and a serious threat to our planet. Once they are gone, we have lost them forever. For plants, seed banks are a way to combat this threat. They are an important part of a robust seed system for food security. Seed banks protect and save…