The Push to Preserve Biodiversity

By Carol Bogart 
Unless you garden, you probably don’t think much about seeds – except to wish raspberries and watermelon had fewer of them.

Although my parents were big on gardening, even before we moved to a farm when I was 10, it wasn’t until later in life that the bug bit me. Once it did, I learned how soothing it can be to work the soil, and what a thrill it is to watch the first plants sprout.

Soon I discovered seed stores that carried hard-to-find “heritage” varieties, like the Marglobe tomato dad used to plant, ’til he could no longer find the seed.

Disappearing seeds have become such a concern that a move is afoot to build an arctic world seed bank, deep in an ice cave on a Norwegian island. The bank’s ambitious goal is the preservation of every known crop on the planet. The purpose: to safeguard the world’s food supply in the event of a catastrophe of global proportions. Say .. a meteor strike? Nuclear war? There are reports that national seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan have already been destroyed. Ironic, given Iraq’s status as being the site of the Biblical Garden of Eden. Fortunately, Syria’s seed bank is said to hold some varieties from those countries.

Of 1,460 seed banks that exist worldwide, as few as 30 are said to provide optimum conditions for storage. Many, according to the trust, don’t have sufficient money for storage equipment, electricity or staff. It’s estimated that one-fifth of their stored seeds are degenerating.

Some years back, the National Seed Storage Laboratory ( in Fort Collins, Col. was reportedly losing varieties at an alarming rate. The laboratory’s National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation or, as those who work there like to say, “the vault,” today protects seeds from 5,000 types of plants – about a billion seeds – in its four-story freezer.

Operated by the U.S Dept. of Agriculture, the vault’s preservation focus is crops that feed man and animal. America’s native wildflowers, many of which are threatened due to deforestation and overgrazing, are dramatically under-represented, the World Wildlife Federation says. The National Park Service and other groups are slowly collecting such wildflower seeds to store there.

Meantime, the Global Crop Diversity Trust ( has been founded, in part, by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. The DuPont Chemical Company has pledged $1-million. The trust hopes to secure $260-million in endowments to fund all existing gene banks, as well as biodiversity research. Money from the fund will build the arctic storage cave in Norway.

According to a news release from DuPont, 37 million acres of tropical rain forest are lost each year. Within 25 years, up to 8 percent of their plants could be lost as well. Pharmaceutical companies have learned that rare or as yet undiscovered plants from such forests may hold hope for curing cancer and other ailments.

Meantime, hundreds of thousands of seed samples from existing gene banks are distributed annually to scientists, breeders and farmers worldwide, in hopes of producing crops more resistant to disease and pests – and more adaptable to changing conditions, such as climate.

It’s estimated that the world’s population will increase by 80 million people a year between now and 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. By funding the world’s struggling gene banks, the trust hopes to ensure an “abundant and affordable” food supply for a world population predicted to reach 9-billion in less than 50 years.

And to think – that supply begins with the world of information stored within a single tiny seed.

Carol Bogart is a freelance writer. Read her blog at Contact her at

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