Ecoscience: Preserving Genetic Diversity With Seed Banks

Find out the benefits of seed banks, including the need for genetic diversity and the problems that seed banks face with underfunding.
By Paul and Anne Ehrlich
May/June 1982

Seed banks help protect plants, national security and more.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/JOHNNY007PAN


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Humankind is fortunate that the extreme seriousness of the loss of genetic variability of crops is balanced by the relative ease with which the situation could be improved. "Seed banks" can, you see, be used to preserve samples of diverse crop strains, as well as populations of their wild relatives. The seeds of most species will keep in cold storage for a number of years before the majority of those in each sample die. Every few years, then, it's necessary to sow the saved seed, allow the plants to mature and harvest the seeds once again for storage.

The Need For Genetic Diversity

However, although seed banks are simple in principle, their operation requires skill and care. The preservation of samples often amounts to little more than allowing the process of natural selection to choose those seeds that most readily survive the storage conditions. Unfortunately, seeds that survive well in storage don't necessarily produce plants with the characteristics that are most useful to farmers.

The rate that a plant strain undergoes selection for survival in storage can, however, be retarded by frequent planting out. But it’s also important that seeds be planted in the region from which they came… or at least under conditions very similar to those that occur in the home area. Otherwise, the strains will lose their unique characteristics, because — once again — selection will gradually adapt them to their new environment.

Seed Banks Are Underfunded

A recent survey, conducted by the government's General Accounting Office (GAO), found that seed-bank operations in the United States leave much to be desired. Our nation's main facility is the Department of Agriculture's National Seed Storage Laboratory at Fort Collins, Colo. Smaller collections are held by various federal and state experiment stations and by commercial seed companies.

The Fort Collins laboratory is currently filled to capacity. It contains more than a quarter-million stored seed samples, but only about half are catalogued so that they're accessible to plant breeders, and the information on many samples is inadequate. Worse than that, the refrigeration equipment suffers periodic breakdowns, and funds aren't available for growing out the seeds as frequently as that should be done.

For example, the bank's large collection of seeds home guayule, a plant with high potential as a new source of natural rubber, hasn't been planted out since World War II, and it's very likely that all of those seeds have died by now. Indeed, well under half of the seeds of any planting from the facility's collections normally germinate, since they've had to endure too long a wait before being sown. Such low survival rates, of course, imply strong selection for storage characteristics.

Protecting Seeds Means Protecting the Nation 

Overall, the GAO found that there was no effective seed-bank system in the nation, and that centralized management was badly needed. As you'd likely imagine, the niggardly level of funding for these crucial operations is near the core of the problem. At present, the federal government spends a total of about $12 million a year on germ plasm collection and storage. . . which is less, in constant dollars, than was spent in 1967! Worse, the Reagan administration may well cut funding even further.

Now it seems to us that the productive capacity of American agriculture is clearly an important facet of the security of the nation. Not only does it abundantly feed our people, but the surplus production available for export provides a major portion of the foreign exchange needed to purchase oil (among other things). Yet each year the United States devotes only about 6 percent of the cost of a single B-l bomber to preserving the irreplaceable genetic base of our crops!

Indeed, for the cost of two such bombers (they run about $200 million apiece), a network of perhaps 20 experiment stations, each superbly equipped for gene conservation, could be established worldwide. And for an annual expenditure equal to the cost of only three F-18 fighters (at approximately $30 million each), those stations could be very well staffed with plant geneticists, botanists, and support personnel.

A well-managed system would have field crews constantly at work making seed collections (each of which would be accompanied by careful notes on the source plants), while continual planting and reevaluation would insure that the quality of the stored samples did not deteriorate with time. A computerized data storage and retrieval system could be used to connect all the stations — providing both easy access to material by users and control of distribution, so that key strains would be represented at several stations to guard against accidental loss.

In addition to running the entire network of stations, the hypothetical budget proposed above would be able to support appropriate local crop subsidy programs. With the experiment stations coordinating such a system, farmers would be paid to grow some traditional crop strains in place of present high-yield varieties. This practice would assure that extensive plantings of the older strains were always present in agro-ecosystems, providing a key backup for the seed-bank operations.

Worldwide Benefits to Seed Banks

And who — you have every right to demand — would pay for all this? As indicated, the United States government could easily afford to do so with only a slight shift in priorities and it would be one of the best "national defense" investments we could make.

But it would be even more reasonable to run such a network as an international enterprise. All rich nations should be eager to participate on a fair-share-of-GNP basis. The Soviet Union, for example, would not only find such a system invaluable to help brace up its own — currently faltering — agriculture, but also reap benefits through the improvement of American crops, on which it on often heavily depends.

Poor nations should also participate. In fact, many of the experiment stations should be located in less developed countries (LDCs). For one thing, such lands are the sources of many wild relatives of today's important crops. Most poor nations, moreover, have had increasing difficulty feeding their rapidly growing populations and would profit from research to develop new crop sources from wild plants — an effort that will require careful genetic husbandry to succeed.

Benefits For Less Developed Countries From Seed Banks

LDCs would benefit from the employment of LDC scientists and local laborers, as well. Furthermore, the stations could serve as on-site research and training centers in plant genetics and conservation, which would be of great value to researchers from other parts of the world.

In capitalist countries, seed companies might be expected to contribute to the cost of maintaining the system of stations, probably by paying fees for the use of the program's information systems and samples. Major international seed and/or grain companies might also help support research and preservation efforts in LDCs. Thus, there are equitable ways that the relatively small costs of the system could be shared.

Preserving the genetic diversity of crops is, of course, just one part of the crucial goal of preserving the diversity of all life on Earth. But it's a task for which the immediate need is evident . . . one that humanity knows how to perform and one that can be done at a reasonable cost. Because every delay can result in the loss of irreplaceable resources, failure to start at once is insanity.


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