Agricultural biodiversity is a hedge: By sustaining diversity in our foods and drinks, we can breed advantageous traits — such as tolerance to drought or resistance to a certain pest — back into what we grow and raise, as needed. We don’t fully know what we’ll need to cultivate in the future, so it’s important to sustain as much diversity as we can today. If these foods aren’t raised on farms or accessible in the wild, then we lose them. That is, unless they’re preserved ex situ (Latin for “out of place”) in stored collections.
The most popular types of ex situ collections are seed banks, but we conserve all kinds of genetic material, ranging from honeybee sperm and goat blood to brewer’s yeast and heirloom potatoes. We don’t only store what we currently use, but varieties and breeds from decades and centuries past, along with wild species that are genetically related to cultivated crops.
The best-known ex situ collection is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, which on February 26 celebrated its 10th-anniversary deposit—with over 23 genebanks depositing from around the world. Locked away under layers of ice and snow, in an underground bunker approximately 800 miles from the North Pole, is a backup collection of the world’s seeds. The collection holds close to 890,000 samples of 600 million seeds, some no bigger than a dot on a page. And Svalbard’s total number of unique crop varieties now sits at over 1 million.“The media calls this a Doomsday Vault,” Cary Fowler, the chair of the Vault’s International Advisory Council, says in his 2012 Do Lecture. But the apocalypse is already upon us: “Every day is Doomsday for particular crop varieties. Every day, we’re experiencing extinction.”
This sense of urgency is why we also have a backup system in the U.S. at the USDA ARS National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation(NCGRP) in Fort Collins, Colorado. Established through the Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990 (better known as the farm bill), the facility was created to secure and sustain our domestic food supply. The Act mandated that the germplasm would be distributed for free (“unless otherwise prohibited by law”) to any country that requested it. It was — and is — the backup for all ARS collections in the country.
Read the full article about the seed bank keeping foods from going extinct by Simran Sethi at The New Food Economy.
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