Seed Banks are the First Line of Defense in Food Security

The tragedy of the Syrian civil war continues to dominate the news - an estimated 250,000 people have been killed and millions more have been forced from their homes - but there is another lesser-known casualty of this conflict: food security.

The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) maintains a genebank in Aleppo, Syria containing over 135,000 seed accessions -- deposits of wheat, barley and other grains suited to the dry regions -- that are vital to agriculture in arid places like northern Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and western Asia. Although the genebank still operates, its recent occupation by Syrian rebels and the takeover of its research fields for food production have made the seeds it contains almost impossible to retrieve.

Thankfully, ICARDA recently deposited duplicates of their seed collection at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway for back-up. NowICARDA is making a sizable withdrawal - tens of thousands of seed packets - in order to reestablish its seed collection in Lebanon and Morocco.

The genebank at SSE

The genebank at SSE

Svalbard was built in 2008 by the Norwegian government to store seed samples from around the world as an insurance policy against the loss of diversity due to natural disasters, the effects of war, and changes in global farming practices. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was designed to act as a safety deposit box for seed banks from around the world. Each depositor retains exclusive ownership and access to the seeds it stores at Svalbard; ICARDA is the first depositor to retrieve some of their deposited seeds.

If seed reserves stored elsewhere are destroyed, the seeds deposited in seed banks act as a reserve for future planting, protecting the biodiversity of our planet.  Seed banks store genetic diversity, but that diversity may be of little value if it remains frozen in a vault, inaccessible to growers.

There are more than 1500 seed banks in the world.   Many of them, likeICARDA, are working with the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, to prevent the further loss of genetic diversity.  This includes Seed Savers Exchange.

Seed Savers Exchange maintains a collection of more than 20,000 varieties of heirloom and open pollinated varieties of seeds and plants at its genebank near Decorah, Iowa.  Some of these seeds are backed up at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation at Ft. Collins, Colorado and, since 2008, Seed Savers Exchange has also deposited 2662 duplicate samples at Svalbard, which now holds more than 850,000 samples from 232 countries.

Seed Savers Exchange takes a two-pronged approached to conservation: an ex situ collection of seeds maintained and stored on site in our seed vault; and an in situ network of gardeners and farmers growing and saving seeds and sharing them through our seed exchange.   Amateur gardeners and seed savers protect 12,000 varieties of vegetables, fruits, flowers, herbs, and grains through SSE’s seed exchange, including America’s rarest family heirlooms and oldest heritage crops. 

The Food Agricultural Organization of the United Nations estimates that 75-percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost since 1900. Even though we in the United States are not facing a desperate situation like the one in Syria, seed banks and seed exchanges remain vital in the fight to stop this loss of genetic diversity.

Humankind has been saving seeds for an estimated 20,000 years.  It is essential that amateur gardeners and farmers work together with non-governmental organizations and governments to ensure that the seeds and plants that form the basis for our food supply are protected for generations to come.


John Torgrimson is the Executive Director of Seed Savers Exchange near Decorah, Iowa

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.