Storing Crops in Seed Banks

Climate change, natural disasters and human activities can all negatively affect crops and agricultural lands. The rapidly growing population also increases food demand significantly. In order to prevent food shortage and crop species extinction, many seed banks have been built all over the world.


What is a seed bank?

Seed bank is a cost-effective method for long-term ex situ plant conservation. Like process of depositing money in a normal bank, organizations send their seeds to and store them in the seed banks. When people like researchers and crop breeders want to use seeds they stored before, they just need to apply for withdrawing them.


Global concern of seed conservation

In 2008, the Norwegian government opens the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in order to conserve crop seeds and agrobiodiversity. This vault locates in Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle. Low temperature and moisture in permafrost provide good conditions for seeds storage.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, by Amber Case, via flickr

This seed vault is the largest secure seed storage in the world, with more than 4000 species in it. It also acts as a backup for global seed banks. Seeds stored in this vault cannot be used, which is different from other usual seed banks. Seeds stored here can only be used when usual seed banks are destroyed, for example, by disasters and wars.

Shelves in the vault, by Global Crop Diversity Trust, via flickr

In 2010 Shanghai EXPO, the main part of the UK pavilion is a seed cathedral, exhibiting tens of thousands seeds to visitors. There are 60,000 robs around the building and each of them contains seeds of a certain kind of plant. This seed cathedral calls for concerns about conserving plants and securing human future.

The seed cathedral in the UK pavilion in 2010 EXPO, by Jim, via flickr

Part of these seeds comes from the Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Project. The Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank is the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. The MSB firstly aims at storing seeds of native plants in the UK, and now the target is to conserve 25% of the world’s plants by 2020.


Implications from seed banks

Except for crops, seeds of endangered species, even less concerned species can also be collected and stored in seed banks, in case of potential extinctions. Storing plant seeds may be helpful for human, since plants currently less used by human may be proved to be useful in the future. Imaging that in 2050, researchers find an effective plant to cure cancers but the plant is nearly extinct. What a depressed news! But thanks to the seed banks, people can grow more this kind of plant and cure many cancer patients, by using seeds they stored 30 years ago.

Although seed banks provide a remediation method for extinctions, they still have some problems. For example, not every kind of seed can be preserved well in cold and dry environment for a long time. So they need to be replaced by fresh seeds periodically. After extinctions, seeds that have been stored for a while may fail to germinate and save the plants.

On the other hand, seeds may not grow well in future changed environment. We can’t expect this method to solve all extinction problems, even it is effective. Human still needs to mitigate global climate change and conserve currently existing species for sustainable development.