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How Seed Banks, Vaults and Exchanges Are Saving Our Food From Disaster

Seeds provide the kind of security to agriculture-oriented people that gold provides to the money-minded.

During the Nazi siege of Leningrad, a group of scientists at the world's oldest seed bank voluntarily starved to death rather than eat the wheat, potatoes, nuts and other seeds being stored at Leningrad's Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry. At the same time, courtesy of Stalin, the institute's founding visionary Nikolay Vavilov was starving to death in a Siberian prison -- but not before he'd gathered more than 50,000 samples from 40 different countries for his institute's collection.

Today the Russian government is attempting to sell Vavilov's land to private developers. The seeds can be moved, but not so easily transported are the hundreds of varieties of rare fruit trees planted in the institute's historic orchards.

Seeds are cheap these days, typically sold for fractions of a penny. But should supplies dry up, it will become difficult for a hungry populace to put a price on these tiny items, given the fact that they can produce infinite amounts of food. Seeds provide the kind of security to agriculture-oriented people that gold provides to the money-minded.

The saving of seeds is as old as agriculture, though today it hardly ranks as a priority for most people, even among gardeners. Nonetheless, a small, committed culture of seed savers is thriving. Many seed savers are also seed exchangers, like the ones I met early this spring in Espanola, New Mexico. Farmers and gardeners from the region brought together their most prized saved seeds and displayed them on tables. They explained their seeds to their fellow savers and perused each other's collections, each taking however much of whatever they wanted.

After all the inner circle of seed savers got their fill, the action opened up to the general public, like me, who'd showed up with nothing but empty bags. My haul included Tarahumara sunflower seeds, Hopi blue corn, Inca rainbow sweet corn, Chimayó chile, yin-yang beans, and seeds for what a little girl promised will be the juiciest carrots ever.

"If you love something, set it free" could be a mantra for these seed lovers, because getting their seeds into wider circulation increases the likelihood that their precious strains will survive. The possibility that many heirloom strains could disappear is real, as the number of crop varieties under cultivation is dropping.

Seed exchanges are like the organic, decentralized cousins to seed banks, which are stable institutions devoted to preserving collections of seeds. Worldwide, the number of seed banks recently surpassed 1,700. Some seed banks are small and regionally focused, while others are vast, with seeds from all corners. Some seed banks will give seeds away, or sell them cheaply, to members. Connecting with such organizations can be a great alternative to buying seeds commercially, especially for small-scale, experimental home gardeners.

If a global version of the Irish potato famine were to wipe out the world's potatoes, the crop could be revived with seed-bank tubers. And in the face of challenges like global warming, it's possible the genetic information stored in seed banks could be used to create new varieties better able to withstand whatever climatic curveballs may come our way.

Three years ago marked the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in arctic Norway. Not a seed bank, since it doesn't do any regeneration of seed, Svalbard simply holds copies of seed collections from seed banks around the world. If seed banks are like insurance policies against regional crop disease and catastrophe, Svalbard is the insurer who insures the insurance company. Every time a depositor seed bank regenerates any of its seed varieties, they update Svalbard's collection, which is on track to hold deposits from 53 nations by the end of 2012.

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