Why seed banks aren't the only answer to food security
Known as the ‘Noah’s Ark of seeds’, the Svalbard global seed vault acts as a backup system for the world’s seeds. Established on Svalbard Island, Norway, about 700 miles from the North Pole, the Seed Bank's purpose is to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds from locations worldwide in an underground cavern, part of an effort to protect the planet's rapidly diminishing biodiversity.
On 10 September, Dr Mahmoud Solh, director general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (Icarda), sent an urgent request to the Svalbard global seed vault asking for the return of collections of seeds once held in Aleppo, Syria.
A few weeks later, 128 crates of seeds holding around 38,000 samples of wheat, barley, lentil, chickpea, fava bean, pea, grass pea and legumes were removed from the vault located in the frigid, snow-packed archipelago halfway between Norway and the north pole.
These seeds are now being sown at research stations in Lebanon and Morocco in the hope that they will soon provide farmers and breeders in Syria, a country besieged by war, with new seeds and saplings.
Roughly 80,000 species from Syria’s collection remain in the vault, the backup system for the world’s seed collections known as the “Noah’s Ark of seeds”.
The withdrawal marked the first time the vault had been accessed, but it will likely not be the last. This is because, for the past century, there has been a dramatic reduction in the diversity of what we grow and eat.
We’re losing food diversity
Seeds are the building blocks of every meal we eat: our fruits and vegetables, our grains and pulses, plus the meat that’s raised on grass and grain. The loss of diversity of what we eat is a result of multiple factors, including the increased industrialisation and globalisation of agriculture that has seen farmers worldwide pushed to abandon multiple local plant varieties for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.
According to data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Monsanto and Syngenta, along with two other companies, control more than 70% of the entire proprietary seed market. The top eight companies control 94% of the commercial market and the USDA report adds that these shares will likely continue to rise.
When commercialised, both hybrids and genetically engineered seeds have to be repurchased every year because they won’t render consistent results if saved and used in subsequent plantings, or because they are protected as the “intellectual property” of seed companies. Those who control seeds ultimately control food.