More Than Pretty Heirloom Tomatoes: Saving Seeds Critical to Combatting Climate Change

old saved seeds photo

The photographer's grandfather had saved these seeds in the 1920s. They were discovered last year and planted in a greenhouse. Photo: Stefan Jansson

Local food, local varieties of plants and the entire locavore movement are reoccurring topics here at TreeHugger. And most of the time the focus is on how by buying locally you're reducing food miles, encouraging local biodiversity in food production, as wells as making a small contribution towards de-industrializing the current agricultural paradigm. But there's another reason biodiversity of agricultural crops is important: The very survival of the human species. In an new piece for Yale Environment 360 Fred Pearce talks about the importance of preserving and reinvigorating the practice of seed saving and its place in coping with climate change. Here are some highlights:Why Heritage Seeds Are Important

The world's heritage of seed diversity is the product of thousands of years of experimental plant breeding by millions of farmers across the world. The crops that humanity has painstakingly bred from wild plants are the kernels of our civilization. When the first farmers planted the first crops 10,000 years ago, the planet could support just 5 million people. Today, thanks to seeds, it feeds 7 billion.

Our future harvests continue to depend on this heritage because the genes found in millions of crop varieties contain vital traits that plant breeders need to improve modern varieties, raising yield, protecting them against new diseases, and adapting them to climate change.

Years of Cheap Food Have Led to Seed Bank Neglect
These seed varieties are disappearing even faster than nature's biodiversity. Many of the varieties lost from fields were assumed to be preserved deep-frozen in a network of 1,400 national and international seed banks, many of them located in the Vavilov centers. They include maize at CIMMYT, the international maize and wheat research center outside Mexico City; the International Rice Research Institute among the rice paddies of the Philippines; and the International Potato Center high in the Peruvian Andes.

Once these centers were the well-funded engine rooms of the green revolution. But since the 1980s, agricultural research has been chronically underfunded. Why bother to maintain these banks, many governments asked, when the world is awash with cheap food?

Pearce goes on to explain how 80% of the world's different maize varieties have disappeared; thousands of varieties of Asian rice (some of which lost at the hands of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia when the seeds banks were ordered shut down); Maoist guerillas sacked the International Potato Center in Peru in the 1980s and, more recently, looters did a job on a wheat, lentil and chickpea seed bank at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

Doomsday Vault May Be Needed Sooner Than Hoped
But there is hope: The so-called 'doomsday vault', or if you prefer another epithet, the 'scientific Arc of the Covenant': A large cold storage cavern carved out of a mountain 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole in Norway. TreeHugger has reported on the doomsday seed vault a couple of times, but this is how Pearce describes it:

When first proposed at the turn of the millennium, the notion of a doomsday vault seemed scientifically quixotic. The idea was that, in the event of a global holocaust like an asteroid hit, runaway climate change, a deadly pandemic, or a nuclear conflagration, survivors would be able to track down the contents of the vault — and start civilization afresh.

The Arctic collection now looks vital not just for some hypothetical "doomsday," but to preserve what is left in the world's dysfunctional seed banks. It turns out we may need those seeds far sooner than we thought.

Read the entire Fred Pearce piece, :: Saving Seeds of the Green Revolution, at Yale Environment 360.

Seed Saving
Norway to Build Doomsday Seed Vault
Doomsday Seed Vault, Part Two
Seed Sense: I See Vanished Vegetables
Quote of the Day: Jonathan Porritt on Saving Our Seeds

More Than Pretty Heirloom Tomatoes: Saving Seeds Critical to Combatting Climate Change
Local food, local varieties of plants and the entire locavore movement are reoccurring topics here at

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