Seed banking: saving both agri- and -culture

It's more than the genes that feed us.

Some have dubbed it the "doomsday vault"; others, taking a more positive tone, call it a repository of biodiversity. However you look at it, the Global Seed Vault is a fortress. Buried under almost 500 feet of Arctic permafrost, secured against bomb blasts, earthquakes, and potential thieves, this massive seed bank, which will ultimately include samples of a large portion of the world's plant varieties, is our high-tech hope for preserving the genetic diversity that underlies the world's food supply. But despite its scope, the seed vault isn't enough.

Why a seed bank in the first place? Because industrial farming approaches have made what was once a plethora of diverse crops into something more like a set of monocultures, carefully bred to meet our standards for long distance travel, high yields, and resistance to bug and weed killers. Many scientists fear that climate change will threaten these crops, which provide us with a huge proportion of our food.

To keep growing enough food, we'll have to breed new plant varieties that fare better in higher temperatures, or in depleted soil, or under whatever challenging conditions a particular crop faces. For that, plant breeders will need to tap the genetic diversity that exists among the many varieties of any given plant. A gene that makes one kind of rice grow well in sandy soil, for example, can be transferred to another kind of rice. This is why preserving each and every variety of plant food is essential to securing our food supply.

But a seed bank, vital as it is, falls short. Why? Because how and what we eat is as much about who we are as it is about the seeds we put in the ground. We're missing something if we believe we're saving ourselves simply by saving seeds.


Don't get me wrong: Genetic diversity in edible plants is the toolbox nature gives us to feed ourselves with, and preserving it by saving seeds is central to our ability to grow and develop new crops. But, as Michael Pollan articulates in his latest book In Defense of Food, the way we eat is attached to our cultures, beliefs, languages, and rituals. We learn about growing and eating food from people who came before us, and that knowledge is as important as the food itself.

The (necessary) sterility of a seed bank doesn't capture the messy, many-threaded ways in which food and agriculture are incorporated into a society. A seed bank doesn't preserve the knowledge of how to grow its precious population, or how farming crops cooperatively might produce different results than farming them individually, or even how to make the plants into edible dishes.

If we want to ensure our food supply, we need to do more than freeze seeds. We need to also take careful notes about culture.

I began thinking about this several years ago, when I had the privilege of visiting a seed bank operated by a group called Native Seeds/SEARCHin Tucson, Arizona, when I was working on a piece about seed saving for our Science of Gardening Web site. Native Seeds/SEARCH Native Seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) was founded in 1983, when Native Americans in the region wanted to grow traditional crops and couldn't locate seeds. Since then, the organization has grown to include 4500 farmers and thousands of seed varieties developed by Native Americans in the Southwest.

NS/S doesn't just save seeds: they save the knowledge that goes with them. NS/S farmers continually plant and grow handfuls of the seed bank's reserve, refreshing the seed stock and passing along knowledge of how to best grow a particular plant. NS/S employees also collect stories from and share knowledge with Native people in the region.

Now, I'm no farmer, but it seems to me that safeguarding both the "agri-" and "-culture" of plant varieties will help us get the most out of the seeds we've saved. Otherwise, we end up seeing the security of our food as little more than a sterile set of seeds stored in a deep freeze, ready to be accessed for answers when our old farming technologies get us in trouble. But feeding ourselves is hardly a sterile affair: we grow, prepare, and consume food in a complex context of environment and humanity. I, for one, think our tendency to dismiss that larger picture is what's gotten us into this biodiversity problem in the first place.

Robin Marks is a journalist and science writer who current serves as a Multimedia Projects Developer for the Exploratorium in San Francisco, CA.