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Rio Rancho, NM
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Taking It To the Bank
Have you ever considered the importance of saving seeds? A seed represent the promise of life -- a new plant in a ready to grow package. It also contains that species’ genetic code including the traits the plant hopes will ensure its survival over the long haul.
Through the years, both through natural selection and human intervention (i.e., plant breeding and genetic engineering), the genetic information of our most commonly grown seeds has evolved. Insects, urban development, agriculture, climate change—even our preference for how plants taste affect which types of plants we choose to grow and thus the seeds that we save. Globally, approximately 150 crops make up the majority of the food grown and consumed by humans. With scientific advancement, we have selected beneficial traits in these crops such as tolerance to drought, frost resistance, enhanced nutritional content, and toughness to withstand mechanical harvesting. In general, to make large-scale agriculture more predictable, the number of varieties grown and the variation in their traits has decreased. The upside of this process? An efficient system that feeds millions and keeps food prices low. The down side? In the future, crops with less variation or biodiversity could be highly vulnerable to disease and biologists are concerned about the lack of ability to create crops that could withstand such diseases.
Saving a wide variety of seeds (not just the ones most commonly grown) can increase our ability to overcome diseases and environmental challenges in the future. Making sure that there is a diversity of genetic information available so scientists can find the right traits at the right time is critical. Keeping seeds viable (able to grow) over time is no small job. Specialized seed banks or gene banks are designed to provide the ideal storage conditions to guarantee the safe keeping of this valuable genetic material.
Seed banks serve as an insurance policy for the future of agriculture and plant science. Disasters such as war, hurricanes, and other destructive events will happen and when they do, entire crops of food and fiber may be eliminated. If seed banks weren’t available to help provide new seed and plants for these locations, the populations may suffer from devastating conditions including famines and economic collapse.
The purpose of a seed bank is to:
Conserve the diversity of plant species.
Offer resources for breeding of stronger crop varieties.
Provide food solutions in times of disaster.
Safeguard food supplies for future generations.
Today, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) lists about 1,750 individual seed banks worldwide (FAO report, 2008), about 130 of which hold more than 10,000 collected items. There are also substantial collections in 2500 different botanical gardens around the world. These botanical gardens grow over 80 thousand plant species (approximately one-third of all known plant species) (FAO report, 20...