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 plant genetic diversity, which is important for a number of reasons. These saved and viable seeds contain a treasure trove of useful genes that breeders can use for developing improved varieties of our major food crops. For example:
- Improve resistance to current and emerging plant diseases and insects.
- Provide drought or flood tolerance.
- Improve yields and nutrition to feed a growing global population.
Rare, heritage, indigenous, wild or regionally-specific plants are particularly vulnerable to extinction. Their loss over time also can lead to genetic erosion of our food system. In other words, we lose the genetic diversity of a variety of crops. Adapting to climate change or new pests can be difficult without good genetic diversity. Crop breeders need a variety of genetic resources to help our crops adapt to changing conditions. As modern cultivars gain acreage and sometimes replace these plants, it becomes increasingly important to make sure these historic genetics are preserved in seed banks for future use.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The large donation was the result of what was supposed to be a small seed drive to help a handful of community gardens. The initiative grew rapidly due to requests from growers on the island and the generosity of donors (individuals, garden clubs and seed companies) from the mainland with easy access to numerous seeds.
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.
What will be better than donations after the next hurricane season? A seed system in place on islands with backup stocks of common cultivars. This will help get plants back in the ground soon after the storm. Having a seed system where home gardeners and farmers have immediate access to high-quality seed builds security and autonomy into a food system, which is valuable for a community.
Preserving genetic resources takes both an appreciation of the value of the plants and funding to follow through. Raising awareness of the value of genetic diversity is a start.
Answered by Maria Gallo and Sarah Dohle, Delaware Valley University
About us: This blog is sponsored and written by members of the American Society of Agronomy and Crop Science Society of America. Our members are researchers and trained, certified, professionals in the areas of growing our world’s food supply while protecting our environment. We work at universities, government research facilities, and private businesses across the United States and the world.