Botanists think there are up to 80,000 wild species of flowering plant left to discover. But a scarcity of funds hampers efforts to collect them. The UN Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992, ratified by 195 states and the European Union, made things more complicated. It recognised plants as part of countries’ national heritage and outlawed “biopiracy”—profiting from plants without compensating the countries in which they were found.
That made exploiting plants fairer but collecting them harder. Some officials saw a chance to get rich. “Suddenly everyone thought these plants were incredibly valuable,” says Mr Hawtin. Getting permission to go on a collecting trip became nearly impossible. “Anybody could say no to a collecting expedition and very few people could say yes.”
Permits became sine qua non, but in poorer countries the environment ministries that were expected to issue them did not always exist. Collectors might see their applications bounced from one department to another, each unwilling to wield its rubber stamp. “No one wanted to be accused in their local paper of helping the biopirates,” says Mr Hawtin.
Persistent botanists have since earned some governments’ trust. It is now much easier to get approval for expeditions than it was in the 1990s, though often with restrictions on what may be collected. “Things are much better now than they were ten years ago,” says Sandy Knapp, head of the plants division at the Natural History Museum in London. A three-year permit from the Peruvian government allows her to collect specimens of Solanaceae, the family that includes tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines…The Millennium Seed Bank now holds workshops in many countries on collection and conservation techniques. It collaborates on expeditions and produces guidebooks to help locals locate and collect seeds for themselves. Yet some countries persist in imposing self-defeating restrictions. India’s biodiversity law, passed in 2002, makes exporting seeds very difficult and sits poorly with its international obligations. If governments fail to understand the urgency of preserving—and sharing—their biodiversity, there may soon be precious little left to collect.
Excerpts from Botany and bureaucracy: A dying breed, Economist, Sept. 12, 2015, at 55
Syria’s civil war has forced scientists to request the first-ever withdrawal of seeds from a Doomsday vault built in the Arctic to safeguard the world’s food supplies…The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) said it has made a request to take back some of its samples from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The vault was created by the Norwegian government in 2008 to protect vital crops such as wheat against global disasters, war or disease.
It will be the first time seeds have been withdrawn from the facility, which lies more than 800 miles inside Arctic Circle — midway between Norway and the North Pole — and is the largest vault of its kind in the world. Built into the mountainside on the Svalbard archipelago, it relies on permafrost and thick rock to ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power..,ICARDA has requested approximately 16,500 of its seed samples — one seventh of the total it has stored in Svalbard — and hopes to reproduce them at its other facilities in Morocco and the American University in Beirut, Lebanon. Eventually it will send new samples back to Norway…
He said some scientists were still present at the Aleppo facility but that its one-time headquarters had been occupied by armed groups. “Fortunately it is not ISIS, they are some fundamentalist groups,” he said. “They seem to co-exist. They are using the land for their own benefit, for example to grow legumes, but we have no control of it…..The Svalbard seed bank has exactly 865,871 samples from every country in the world, Asdal said. “In fact, we have seeds from more countries than now exist,” he explained, since some of the older seeds are from now-defunct nations such as Czechoslovakia. Syria’s civil war has killed a quarter of a million people since 2011, according to United Nations estimates, and driven 11 million more from their homes.
Excerpts from ALASTAIR JAMIESON, Syria War Forces First Withdrawal from Svalbard Global Seed Vault,NBC News, Sept. 25, 2015
Opened in 2008, the Svalbard vault is a backup for the world’s 1,750 seed banks, storehouses of agricultural biodiversity. To illustrate the need for it, the Philippines’ national seed bank was destroyed by fire in January, six years after it was damaged by flooding. Those of Afghanistan and Iraq were destroyed in recent wars. Should the conflict in Syria reach that country’s richest store, in Aleppo, the damage would now be less. Some 110,000 Syrian seed samples are now in the Svalbard vault, out of around 750,000 samples in all. “When I see this,” says Mr Fowler, looking lovingly at his latest consignment, “I just think, ‘thank goodness, they’re safe.’”
The Svalbard vault is protected by two airlocks, at the end of a tunnel sunk 160 metres into the permafrost of Norway’s Arctic archipelago, outside the village of Longyearbyen, one of the world’s most northerly habitations. It is maintained at a constant temperature of -18°C. This is serious disaster preparedness: if its electricity were cut, Mr Fowler reckons the vault would take two centuries to warm to freezing point. He also enthusiastically points to its concave tunnel-head, designed to deflect the force of a missile strike. Such precautions have spawned the facility’s nickname: the Doomsday Vault.
Mr Fowler, who manages it on behalf of Norway’s government, an association of Nordic gene banks and an international body, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, reckons the vault contains samples of around two-thirds of the world’s stored crop biodiversity. To augment this, he will also soon embark on a project, funded with $50m from Norway, to collect the seeds of many crops’ wild ancestors.
Most seed banks were created in the 1970s and 1980s, towards the end of a global surge in crop yields, wrought largely through the adoption of hybridised seed varieties, known as the Green Revolution. The idea was born of a realisation that a vast amount of agricultural biodiversity was being lost, as farmers abandoned old seeds, often locally developed over centuries, for the new hybrids. The extent of the loss, which continues today, is poorly documented. The extinction of non-human species is generally better studied than the loss of the genetic material that sustains humanity. Yet, largely on the basis of named crop varieties that are no longer extant, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields. India is reckoned to have had over 100,000 varieties of rice a century ago; it now has only a few thousand. America once had around 5,000 apple varieties, and now has a few hundred. Such measures probably underestimate the scale of the losses, because a single traditional seed variety often contains a lot of genetic diversity.
It is hard to quantify how much this matters; but the long-term risks are potentially huge. Agricultural biodiversity is the best hedge against future blights, including pests, diseases and climate change. That is why plant breeders, from poor smallholders to the world’s biggest biotech firms, masters of the genetically modified organism (GMO), continuously update their genetic stock, often from obscure sources. “If we ignore genetic diversity while we develop GMO products, we risk a disease or pest emerging that will wipe those types out,” says John Soper, head of crop genetics research at Pioneer Hi-Bred, the seed division of DuPont, a chemicals giant. He says the firm has drawn genetic material from its stock of wild American sunflower seeds three or four times in the past decade, in a bid to make its commercial varieties resistant to broomrape, a parasitic blight of southern Europe. It also has plans to cope with climate change, having recently opened a research outfit in chilly western Canada. It is trying to develop local varieties of maize (corn) and soyabean, which are not grown there commercially, but may be as the temperature climbs.
Yet biotech firms cannot be relied upon to look after crop biodiversity. Their gene banks are too small and too concentrated on a handful of commercial crops. Their urge to make profits is not necessarily aligned with the wider cause of feeding mankind. Hence a recent push to boost national gene banks, of which the Svalbard vault is a product….In many such developing countries, gene banks are impoverished and badly managed, which is another threat to their stocks. Pondering one of the risks, Mr Fowler warns “a millennium of agricultural activity can disappear one night in a bowl of porridge.”
Yet seed banks are not the only answer to saving crop biodiversity: it also needs conserving in fields. This is because seed banks rarely store varieties of crop that do not produce seeds, including cassava, bananas and many other fruits and berries. They also rarely record local knowledge of their deposits, which can be almost as important as the seeds themselves. Unlike seed banks, moreover, nature is anything but ossified: it is gloriously adaptable. Over the past 15 years in West Africa, for example, populations of traditional sorghum varieties have been observed shortening their growth cycle by two weeks in response to a curtailed rainy season. The best way to harness this adaptability is simply to let nature get on with it.
Farmers’ eagerness to jettison their wily old landraces is understandable. Improved varieties of seed are estimated to have boosted yields by 21-43%, independently of fertilisers and other inputs. To conserve crop biodiversity amid the inevitable rush for hybrids, seed banks have an important role. But another solution—as to many climate-related problems—is to make drastic improvements in land-use planning, and then encourage strategically placed farmers to dedicate a small area to traditional crops. Ways of doing this include developing niche markets for their endearingly old-school vegetables and grains or even, as in Nepal, with the national equivalent of a harvest festival. Its government regularly dishes out prizes to those farmers with the most biodiverse land.
Excerpt, Agricultural biodiversity: Banking against Doomsday, Economist, Mar. 10, 2012, at 71