22 Sep 2008: Analysis

Saving the Seeds of the
Next Green Revolution

With food prices skyrocketing and climate change looming, the world needs a green revolution like the one a generation ago. But many valuable seed varieties have been lost – and scientists now are scrambling to protect those that remain before they vanish down the genetic drain.

by fred pearce

Suddenly plant breeding is sexy. In recent months, soaring prices of food, coupled with fears of runaway climate change, have brought calls for a renaissance in agricultural research — to boost crop yields and deliver new varieties that can stand the heat and drought of a greenhouse world.

The world needs a repeat of the advances made during the last green revolution a generation ago, which doubled global food output.

But the truth is that this new revolution is hobbled before it starts. Decades of underinvestment since the last green revolution have left the world’s crops in genetic meltdown. In many cases, the feedstocks for a new push for plant breeding simply aren’t there.

Enlarge image
Seed at the CIMMYT Seed Health Laboratory in Mexico is cleaned of dust and chaff, then dried to keep it viable.
Two things have gone wrong. First, the standardized varieties produced during the last green revolution proved so successful that they have taken over the world’s fields, elbowing out thousands of traditional varieties bred by farmers over the years. Second, many of the backup stocks of those varieties, held in the world’s seed banks, have suffered from government inattention and penny-pinching, resulting in the decimation of collections.

The world’s heritage of seed diversity is the product of thousands of years of experimental plant breeding by millions of farmers across the world. The crops that humanity has painstakingly bred from wild plants are the kernels of our civilization. When the first farmers planted the first crops 10,000 years ago, the planet could support just 5 million people. Today, thanks to seeds, it feeds 7 billion.

Our future harvests continue to depend on this heritage because the genes found in millions of crop varieties contain vital traits that plant breeders need to improve modern varieties, raising yield, protecting them against new diseases, and adapting them to climate change.

Any variety could be vital. Some of the great successes of modern plant breeding have arisen from serendipitous finds. A hedgerow in India yielded a wild rice plant that had resistance to a killer virus. That gene is now bred into rice plants grown across 100,000 square kilometers of Asia. Veteran American researcher Jack Harlan traveled for days on a donkey in eastern Turkey in the 1940s to find a single wheat seed that rescued the U.S. crop from stripe rust disease and is still worth millions of dollars a year to farmers.

Far from making them redundant, new technologies such as genetic engineering only increase the potential benefits from such finds.

But this man-made genetic treasure trove is found in only a few places — much of it in ancient geographical heartlands, known as Vavilov centers after the Russian seed collector and plant scientist Nicolai Vavilov, who first identified them in the 1920s and 1930s.

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About 24,000 unique samples of maize seed and 168,000 samples of wheat are kept at -3 degrees Celsius at the CIMMYT research center.
These seed varieties are disappearing even faster than nature’s biodiversity. Many of the varieties lost from fields were assumed to be preserved deep-frozen in a network of 1,400 national and international seed banks, many of them located in the Vavilov centers. They include maize at CIMMYT, the international maize and wheat research center outside Mexico City; the International Rice Research Institute among the rice paddies of the Philippines; and the International Potato Center high in the Peruvian Andes.

Once these centers were the well-funded engine rooms of the green revolution. But since the 1980s, agricultural research has been chronically underfunded. Why bother to maintain these banks, many governments asked, when the world is awash with cheap food?

Many of the gene banks have been poorly run. Some irreplaceable seed collections have been destroyed in wars and floods and ransacked by looters and terrorists. Others have been lost through incompetence, or when power supplies broke down and the freezers thawed out.

Take maize. It is the world’s most widely grown crop. But Suketoshi Taba, head of CIMMYT, says around 80 percent of traditional varieties have been lost from fields. And at least half of the varieties supposedly stored for future breeding programs in seed banks are actually unable to germinate. CIMMYT’s store may be safe, but much of the rest is lost.

Meanwhile, across Asia, thousands of varieties of rice have disappeared. One of the worst genetic disasters occurred in one of rice’s most important homelands, Cambodia. Numerous traditional rice varieties were lost during Pol Pot’s “Year Zero” rule in the 1970s, when paddies were turned over to collective farming and seed banks were shut down.

Enlarge image
The “doomsday vault,” a large concrete cavern dug inside a frozen mountain 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole at Svalbard, Norway.
Fields at the International Potato Center in Peru were ransacked by invading Maoist guerrillas in the 1980s. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, looters pillaged a key store of wheat, lentil, and chickpea seeds at Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad.

In a budget-cutting move, dozens of cabbage varieties at a Dutch research center, the Center for Genetic Resources in Wageningen, were culled. Meanwhile, the Pacific Regional Germplasm Center in Suva, Fiji, has given up trying to preserve unique collections of local staple foods, such as taro and yams, which were planted in research fields.

Is there hope? Well, much has been lost. Many plants with specific genetic traits that now might be critically needed are no more. Nothing can be done about that. But the curators of the world’s seed banks hope that renewed interest in global food supplies will revive funding for their work and help protect what is left before it disappears down the genetic drain. And they are already constructing a permanent repository for the world’s seeds to preserve what remains.

They call it the “doomsday vault” — a large concrete cavern hewn out of a frozen mountain just 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole at Svalbard, Norway. The future of humanity could one day depend on the contents of this newly excavated vault, which is now being filled with seeds of the millions of crop varieties that have fed humanity for the last 10,000 years.

This scientific Ark of the Covenant, being assembled by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, is a survival kit for the world. It will eventually contain backup copies of the world’s entire surviving collections of banked seed varieties.

At Mexico’s CIMMYT center recently, I watched as the staff packaged corn samples assembled from around the world, including the bank’s own unparalleled collection, for shipping to Svalbard. Eventually the world’s entire known diversity of maize seeds — perhaps a quarter-million varieties — will be represented in the Arctic.

When first proposed at the turn of the millennium, the notion of a doomsday vault seemed scientifically quixotic. The idea was that, in the event of a global holocaust like an asteroid hit, runaway climate change, a deadly pandemic, or a nuclear conflagration, survivors would be able to track down the contents of the vault — and start civilization afresh.

But that was when food prices worldwide were at record lows and climate change seemed far less urgent. That’s all changed, and now there are serious questions both about whether the world can feed itself, and whether it can do so at prices that do not provoke riot and revolution in the megacities of the developing world.

The Arctic collection now looks vital not just for some hypothetical “doomsday,” but to preserve what is left in the world’s dysfunctional seed banks. It turns out we may need those seeds far sooner than we thought.

POSTED ON 22 Sep 2008 IN Biodiversity Climate Policy & Politics Science & Technology Sustainability Antarctica and the Arctic Central & South America 


For further information on this topic, consider
reading Gary Paul Nabhan's new book Where
Our Food Comes From.

In it, Nabhan contends that seeds should be in the hands of traditional farmers where they can
more easily adapt to the changing climate in a
more rapid and resilient way.
Posted by Island Press on 24 Sep 2008

MY BOOKLET global warming is a myth is a scientific analysis of the subject.the following topics have been discussed:
1)the cooling earth-it radiates heat into outer space as it is hotter than the latter
2)is co2 the villain?-it is only 0.035 percent.i have explained how nature mmaintains this
3)role of hydrology-water molecules carry heat from the interior of earth to the sea bottom and from there to the atmosphere.ice sheets around the poles prevent heat from escaping into the atmosphere.
4)history-quotations from THOMMAS MILNER'S
book written in 1853
for the booklet-contact-waterfriendkks@gmail.com
Posted by K.K.SUBRAMANIAN on 26 Sep 2008

While the center-of-origin of potatoes is indeed the high Peruvian Andes, the International Potato Center is located in the low-lying coastal city of Lima.
Posted by Maywa Montenegro on 12 Oct 2008

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence (Beacon Press). His next, Confessions of an Eco Sinner, will be published in the fall. Pearce's most recent article for Yale e360 was about world population trends.



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