Photo by Joanna Krosinka

Saving More Than Seeds

Gene banks and seed vaults are saving and protecting crop seeds and the genetic diversity within crops, crop races, and some closely related species. There are some 1,700 gene and seed banks in the world with perhaps the most well-known being the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Norway), but others include the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (Syria), Kew Millenium Seed Bank (UK), Global Crop Diversity Trust (Germany), and National Seed Storage Laboratory (USA). They are capable of storing and protecting many millions of species and crop cultivars.

These efforts are an insurance policy for protecting our future ability to produce food in case of catastrophic changes in climates that reduce or even prevent food production from the current crop lines and in our current agricultural regions. Without this global effort to save seeds of millions of species, including as many crops as possible from every place on the planet, we would be facing a future with literally no hope of recovering from climate-change driven loss of food production.

However, equally important is the growing recognition that protecting the progenitors of our crops, which are the wild species that still exist and are the source of critically important genetic material for strengthening their domesticated cousins. The wild species are often well known, but much less effort has been expended to save those species and varieties although this effort is gaining momentum. The reason for protecting the wild species is basic and incredibly important, but is rooted in the direction modern agriculture has taken for the past century and especially since WWII. That direction is the intentional reduction of genetic diversity in crop cultivars, which carries with it the highly consequential result of eliminating any ability of those crops to adapt, or even adjust, to changing environmental conditions.

Global Seed Vault (cropped)
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, via Wikimedia Commons.

If you were to walk into a corn field in Iowa, you would be in the midst of, essentially, a single plant. That is, every plant you see would be genetically identical to every other plant in that field. This process of genetic simplification through inbreeding and hybridization has been a normal practice in crop improvement research for many decades. In recent years, this simplification has been intensified because genetically modified strains of corn are patented genotypes belonging to the companies that produce them.

A modern strain of corn grows at a uniform rate, to a specific height, produces ears of a particular size and quality that ripen at exactly the same time, and can be harvested with a single attempt. This uniformity saves time and energy, reduces losses, and ensures buyers of the quality of the product. However, these genetically uniform crops have absolutely no ability to withstand change; that ability has been bred out of them. For the purposes of crop production in a uniform growing environment, any and all traits of a crop that divert energy from the maximum production of seeds or fruit are frowned upon.

Thus, corn, wheat, cotton, soy, and many other commodity crops produced at very large scales have been stripped down genetically and are now no more than biological production machines. They are like albino lab rats; if they were released into the wild, they would probably not last the night. And in the case of genetically weakened crop plants, a changing climate could spell disaster.

Corn fields near Royal, Illinois
Corn fields near Royal, Illinois, via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately for crop scientists and farmers, closely related wild species of our crops contain genetic material that is very highly adapted to the home environments of those species. And this genetic variation to many diverse environmental conditions can be used to rescue our crops (and us) from impending climatic changes that could dramatically affect our ability to produce food.

Plant scientists have for years searched for genes to strengthen corn and wheat and other crops that have been weakened as a consequence of the previously mentioned genetic simplification from inbreeding and hybridization. For corn, testing Mexican land races and even the original corn plant (teosinte) for useful genes is a regular practice. Without these genes for improving and maintaining the strength and vitality of modern corn cultivars, our genetically simplified and highly inbred strains would be unable to produce viable seed within a few years.

Protection of wild plant species is the same as protecting our future ability to feed ourselves. We should be growing a genetically diverse food base as a rule, as a matter of national importance, perhaps even pride. Although there are 4,000 types of potato, the large majority of US production is from a small number of cultivars of russet potatoes and 41% of all US production is the Burbank Russet. There are thousands of varieties of apples, adapted to all regions of the US, but the marketplace is dominated by only five varieties. Over the past 100 years, we have lost in one way or another the majority of our crop varieties by focusing commercial production on only a few. This does not bode well for a quick response to a changing climate and the doubt it creates concerning future farm production.

Example of one of the first genetic reserves established to conserve crop wild relatives near Kalakh al Hosn, Syria. Photo by Nigel Maxted, University of Birmingham, via Wikimedia Commons

The protection of existing genetic variation is equivalent to the protection of adaptations to the natural world. An adaptation in a wild species is an evolutionary response (and solution) to stress. Stress reduces growth, vitality, production, and survival, and increases the chances of losses to predators and pathogens. Adaptations reduce stress and therefore reduce losses in productivity. Thus, protecting biodiversity in the natural world should underlie our efforts to protect our future food supply.

The enemy of agriculture is probably not so much the change in climate, but what can be triggered by a change in climate. That is, a warmer world may be somewhat more stressful to a crop plant, yes, but the movement of new insects and diseases is also very likely to happen with a changing climate and that could lead to catastrophic problems that we cannot anticipate. Our multitude of experiences with invasive plant and animal species and pathogens provide plenty of evidence for the dangers. However, we also need to recognize that our history of relying on technology to save us from every new peril is also the process of responding to danger rather than anticipating it. While saving the source of food in seed vaults is a critically important insurance policy, our food investment portfolio would be better protected against those things we cannot predict if it is diversified by including wild species and natural habitats as well.