Seeding the future
A British seed bank worries that lack of funding will stop the work of saving the world's most diverse collection of seeds.
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The ultramodern facility in the tranquil English countryside looks like a perfect lab for a James Bond villain, but it doesn’t hide anything sinister. The only thing kept here are seeds, lots of them — more than a billion, in fact.
Scientists say this is the world’s most diverse seed bank, but its keepers worry that the global financial crisis could cut its government and corporate funding and cause the seed gathering to wither at the end of next year, well short of its goal.
“This is the world’s biodiversity hot spot,” said Paul Smith, director of the Millennium Seed Bank Project, standing outside two room-size vaults filled with precious seeds which are kept at minus 4 degrees F. to slow their metabolism.
“That’s important for mankind. But if the funding situation doesn’t improve, we’ll have to stop collecting.”
He has already seen a tightening of philanthropic budgets in recent months that is affecting the seed bank’s future. “We have not raised the kind of money we had hoped to at this point,” Smith said.
There are more than 1,000 seed banks — including a newly opened, unmanned “doomsday” facility in the Arctic wastes of Norway that will ultimately house more than 1 billion crop seeds. But the one at Wakehurst Place, about 30 miles south of London, says it’s the only global facility of its kind, unique for its focus on wild species, not just crops.
It says it aims to store a quarter of the world’s species by 2020, and could eventually house half of them. It currently has 25,000 species and 1.5 billion seeds.
The seed bank’s scientists gauge the total number of plant species at 300,000, which represents a middle figure in the widely varying, constantly changing, global estimate.
It doesn’t just take in seeds — it sends them out. Millennium Bank seeds are being used in Australia to figure out what plants can grow in salty reclaimed land, and in Pakistan and Egypt to find plants that can withstand drought and slow desert encroachment.
Saving the world’s seeds does not come cheap.
At the Millennium Seed Bank, it costs about $3,000 per species to ship in the seeds, meticulously clean them, X-ray them for insect damage, and freeze them for possible future use as medicine, a commercial product, or a reviver of a plant that has gone extinct.
It is a global effort: The bank has more than 120 different partners in some 50 countries where seeds are collected and stored. In many cases, seeds are kept both in their native countries and here as a backup.
Some countries, Brazil for instance, are unwilling to send precious seeds overseas, so they are kept in at least two seed banks inside the country, their standards monitored by Millennium Seed Bank experts.
The project, under the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, started in 2000 with 72 million pounds, then about $110 million, in funding from Britain’s national lottery and governmental, corporate, and individual sponsors.