During the Nazi siege of Leningrad, a group of scientists at the world's oldest seed bank starved to death rather than eat the wheat, potato, nut, and other seeds stored at Leningrad's Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry. At the same time, courtesy of Stalin, the institute's founding visionary Nikolay Vavilov was starving to death in a Siberian prison—but not before he'd gathered more than 50,000 samples from 40 countries for his institute's collection.
Today the Russian government is attempting to sell Vavilov's land to private developers. The seeds can be moved, but not so easily transported are the hundreds of varieties of rare fruit trees planted in the institute's historic orchards.
Seeds are cheap these days, typically sold for fractions of a penny. But should supplies dry up, it will become difficult for a hungry populace to put a price on these tiny items, given the fact that they can produce infinite amounts of food. Seeds provide the kind of security to agriculture-oriented people that gold provides to the money-minded.
Seed saving is as old as agriculture, though today it hardly ranks as a priority for most people, even among gardeners. Nonetheless, a small, committed culture of seed savers is thriving. Many seed savers are also seed exchangers, like the ones I met early this spring in Espanola, New Mexico. Farmers and gardeners from the region brought together their most prized seeds and displayed them on tables. They explained their seeds to their fellow savers and perused each other's collections, taking however much of whatever they wanted. After all the inner circle of seed savers got their fill, the action opened up to the general public, like me, who'd showed up with nothing but empty bags. My haul included Tarahumara sunflower seeds, Hopi blue corn, Inca rainbow sweet corn, Chimayó chile, yin-yang beans, and seeds for what a little girl promised will be the juiciest carrots ever.
"If you love something, set it free" could be a mantra for these seed lovers, because getting their seeds into wider circulation increases the likelihood that their precious strains will survive. The possibility that many heirloom strains could disappear is real, as the number of crop varieties under cultivation is dropping.
Seed exchanges are like the organic, decentralized cousins to seed banks, which are stable institutions devoted to preserving collections of seeds. Worldwide, the number of seed banks recently surpassed 1,700. Some seed banks are small and regionally focused, while others are vast, with seeds from all corners of the globe. Some seed banks will give seeds away, or sell them cheaply, to members. Connecting with such organizations can be a great alternative to buying seeds commercially, especially for small-scale, experimental home gardeners.
If a global version of the Irish potato famine were to wipe out the world's potatoes, the crop could be revived with seed-bank tubers. And in the face of challenges like global warming, it's possible that the genetic information stored in seed banks could be used to create new varieties better able to withstand whatever climatic curveballs may come our way.
Three years ago marked the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in arctic Norway. Not a seed bank, since it doesn't do any regeneration of seed, Svalbard simply holds copies of seed collections from seed banks around the world. If seed banks are like insurance policies against regional crop disease and catastrophe, Svalbard is the insurer who insures the insurance company. Every time a depositor seed bank regenerates any of its seed varieties, they update Svalbard's collection, which is on track to hold deposits from 53 nations by the end of 2012.
Had Svalbard been up and running before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the contents of the country's war-torn and looted national seed bank might have been backed up in Norway. The collection, which included rare strains of wheat, almonds, and apricots, was lost in the chaos of the U.S. invasion and occupation.
Efforts to save Iraq's national seed bank during the U.S. invasion were more successful. The collection, which includes Mesopotamian strains of lentil, wheat, and chickpea, was moved to Aleppo, Syria, where it now faces political instability all over again.
Svalbard has been nicknamed the "Doomsday Vault" because its location and construction were designed to withstand a variety of manmade and natural disasters. North enough to withstand rising temperatures, high enough to skirt tsunamis and rising sea levels, remote enough to survive a nuclear war, and deep enough in a mountain to withstand meteorites, bombs, and tornadoes, Svalbard has as good a chance as anything on earth of surviving the big one.
Fears have been expressed by some in the seed community that the centralization of so many seeds will facilitate GMO takeover, biopiracy, or some other sort of greedy exploitation.
"We built a tunnel in a frozen mountain and put seeds in it," explains Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Rome-based nonprofit that funded Svalbard's construction and now covers its operating costs. Fowler is patient but weary as he defends the accusations that Svalbard is the Trojan Horse for a Monsanto gene-grab, or will otherwise bring about some kind of global doomsday of its own.
While comet and tomahawk missile strikes are unlikely to test the vault's defenses any time soon, there are, unfortunately, many smaller, regional doomsdays happening all the time. And that's where Svalbard can make a difference, Fowler says.
If a Svalbard depositor's primary collection is lost, a la Afghanistan, that depositor would have a back-up of that country's agricultural genetic hard-drive. And while the Afghani seed bank perished in the war, all was not lost. Nikolay Vavilov had made a trip there in 1918, and had gathered samples of fruit, nuts, and wheat for his collection. A little more than 20 years later, as Vavilov languished in a Siberian prison, members of his staff died to save that collection. So far 111 seed varieties from the Vavilov Institute's collection have made it to Svalbard, with more on the way.