by Naomi Jackson, Becketwood Member
In the past 20 years, about 300,000 farmers in India have committed suicide.1 Those most at risk were small farmers who had switched to GMO cotton seeds (Bt), in which genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a biological pesticide, had been inserted. These seeds promised bigger harvests but required chemical input.
When farmers stopped growing indigenous varieties of cotton, they could no longer save seed for planting. Each year they had to purchase seed and chemicals, often taking out loans to do so. Small farmers rarely have access to irrigation, so if the rains fail, crops fail. Eventually the cycle of debt brought these farmers to such despair that they chose to end their lives.
Farmers who continued to grow the old, locally adapted varieties of cotton didn't need to buy seeds or chemicals. Their seeds might produce less cotton, but the plants are drought-resistant and mature before the cotton boll weevil emerges.
This story describes one of many problems the global switch to industrial agriculture created in the mid-20th century, including the destruction of soil biomes (communities of plants, animals, and microbes in an area); the loss of traditional farming techniques; the concentration of power and money into a few multinational corporations; and the loss of biodiversity in our crops and in our food.
Why does diversity matter? Whether it's soil microbes, farming techniques, or potatoes, the more variety we have, the better equipped we are to be able to feed the world, respond to disasters, and adapt to changing climate. Genetic and cultural information is like a library. The more information you have, the better the library.
In the 19th century, the Irish only had one book in their library, a potato called the Lumper, and that's what everyone planted. When potato blight reached Irish shores, every Lumper in the country succumbed, a million people starved to death, and another million fled the country. If they'd had access to some of the 600 varieties now grown at Parque de la Papa (Potato Park)2 in the Andes, the tragedy could have been averted.
The same thing can and will happen again, because vast farm fields around the world are planted with only one kind of corn, one kind of rice, one kind of soybean, one kind of wheat. In recent years, at least 75% of all plant varieties eaten by human beings have gone extinct, because they weren't being used.2
The genetic diversity in traditional and heirloom seeds and plants, our library of information, is our insurance against mass starvation. Fortunately, scientists, small farmers, and gardeners are working desperately to save crop biodiversity. One result has been the creation of seed banks.
Saving diversity in Norway, Syria, and Russia
Possibly the best-known seed bank is in Svalbard, Norway, on a remote island where permafrost ensures that the seeds in the mountain-side vault will stay frozen even if the refrigeration units fail. You might have heard it called the “Doomsday Vault,” but that's not its purpose. It works much like a financial bank (sans interest).
Countries around the world can bank their most valued seeds at Svalbard, in case they should face disaster and need them. Because Norway is seen as politically neutral, more countries are likely to use the Svalbard Seed Bank. Even North Korea has seeds there, its wooden crates packed side-by-side with slick plastic totes from wealthier countries.3 No country can access another country's seeds, nor is the vault intended as a solution for global disaster.
Sadly, the very disasters they are designed to protect against threaten many seed banks today. Aleppo, Syria, possibly the world's oldest city, is now one of the most endangered. Its seed bank, part of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), held seeds for crops adapted to arid environments.
When war broke in Syria, ICARDA sent a shipment of seeds from Aleppo to Svalbard for safekeeping, and the Aleppo scientists fled to Beirut. Recently ICARDA became the first organization to withdraw seeds from the Svalbard vault as it tries to restore its collection.4,5 Aleppo is so heavily damaged that it won't host a seed bank again, but because of Svalbard, ICARDA was able to preserve seeds for future use in the Middle East.
The Pavlovsk Research Station in Russia offers something that Svalbard and other seed banks can't. Many plant species can't be stored for long, or even at all, as seeds. Thus there is a great need for locations where these species can be planted and kept alive. The PRS hosts a vast collection of fruit trees and shrubs.
The PRS grew out of the work of botanist Nikolai Vavilov who, beginning in 1929, traveled around the world collecting fruits and berries. He started seed banks across Russia, discovered that Kazakhstan was the original home of most European fruit trees, and identified what are now called Vavilov Centers, hot spots of botanical diversity.6 Unfortunately Vavilov's career was cut short when he ran afoul of Stalin and was sent to a gulag, where he died of starvation in 1943.
In 2010, the Pavlovsk Research Station was almost lost to urban development. At the last minute, an international outcry led to a Russian government order “...assigning these lands to areas for the purpose of agriculture.”7
Needed: Gardeners and Small Farmers
Seed banks and plant collections are good for emergencies, but small farmers and gardeners do the most important work in preserving diversity on the land. Even in Svalbard, seeds can't be kept indefinitely; after years in storage, seeds lose their viability. They must be planted and grown so that fresh seed can be saved and shared.
Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, does just that. SSE has its own seed bank, as well as an impressive collection of heirloom seeds and plants for sale. They grow some of the seed at their headquarters, but they also have a network of farmers and gardeners across the country who specialize in particular heirloom crops and who grow seed for SSE to sell.
SSE is now focusing on a critical link in preserving diversity: you, the Becketwood gardener. In addition to buying and growing their heirloom seeds, SSE would like you to consider learning how to save your own seeds. SSE offers expert advice on how to grow and save your own seed. Check their website for resources.8
What happens when you save your own seeds? You end up creating a plant variety that is specifically adapted to your local climate and soil, thus adding to our library of genetic diversity. And you have interesting seeds to share with your neighbors. Best of all, you can help save the earth in your own garden.
- Philpott, Tom. “No, GMOs Didn't Create India's Farmer Suicide Problem, But...,” Mother Jones, 9/30/2015. www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2015/09/no-gmos-didnt-create-indias-farmer-suicide-problem
- Schiffman, Richard. “An Insurance Policy for Climate Change? How Seed Banks Are Protecting the Future of Food,” Moyers & Company, 12/10/2014. billmoyers.com/2014/12/10/insurance-policy-climate-change-seed-banks-protecting-future-food/
- Goldenberg, Suzanne. “The doomsday vault: the seeds that could save a post-apocalyptic world,” The Guardian, 5/20/2015. www.theguardian.com/science/2015/may/20/the-doomsday-vault-seeds-save-post-apocalyptic-world
- Andersen, Ross. “Rescuing Ancient Seeds From a War-Torn City,” The Atlantic, 9/23/2015. www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2015/09/rescuing-ancient-seeds-from-a-war-torn-city/406978/
- Palermo, Elizabeth. “'Doomsday' Seed Vault: The Science Behind World's Arctic Storage Cube,” Live Science, 9/24/2015. www.livescience.com/52291-first-withdrawal-doomsday-seed-vault.html
- Pearce, Fred. “New Hope for Pavlovsk Station and Russia's Rare Plant Reserve,” environment 360, September 2010. e360.yale.edu/feature/new_hope_for_pavlovsk_station_and_russias_rare_plant_reserve/2320/
- “An Order of the Russian Government,” 5/14/2011. www.vir.nw.ru/news/14.05.2012_en.html
- Seed Savers Exchange. www.seedsavers.org/