Seed conservation and the doomsday vault

466427534_2864669640_m Ideas can come in many shapes and sizes. As I was contemplating a suitable blog topic, I was handed a copy of Life After People – a movie based on the simple notion of what would remain of our structures if we were to suddenly disappear. Around this time I was reading articles on seed conservation and so the two melded. I’m not so much concerned about what happens after us but what happens to us if anything else goes first.

Considering the well-known fragility of many ecosystems and their tendency towards chaos I might have hoped that we would be in a better shape than we are. When I survey the conservation scene, I know we are further ahead in science but to what extent are we further ahead in wisdom and action? We know what we need to do so why is it so difficult (unless it’s a wicked problem!).

I’d prefer to re-visit the nature of the problem side later on, but the idea of protecting biological material must to back to Noah if not before. That argument required two of everything put into a ship of fixed size, taken from the environment and later replaced (in that case after a flood but any climate phenomenon would do!). As a lesson in conservation, this is an ex-situ case, as distinct from the more usual practice of managing species where they are (in-situ conservation). It’s a pity that the former has had such a bad press of late; not all of it deserved.  Zoos might not allow the territorial space of the natural environment but they do allow the most endangered species to survive. Yes, it’s second-best but at least it’s a start back from the brink. I was fortunate to be able to take students to Marwell Wildlife (when it was Marwell Zoo so that shows my age!). I was struck by the care and attention to detail of the conservationists there and it remained a high point of the course I used to run.

Whilst such efforts are well known, less is said about plant conservation. True, we have places like Kew Gardens in London housing growing plants but now there are numerous other efforts to maintain biodiversity. Perhaps one of the better known, not least because of it’s design and location is the Svalbard Seed Vault, referred to initially as the doomsday vault probably following the idea that it would provide viable seeds when all else had failed. Although it’s these projects that get the publicity we shouldn’t forget a range of other schemes because they show the diversity of approaches. The BGCI (with headquarters at Kew) deals with plants rather than seeds per se; highlighting it’s ideals of ex-situ conservation as a way forward. Kew Gardens also has its own project, the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.  These are not the only ones by any means. A report from Worldwatch notes at least 5 major seed banks and post from AGprofessional lists 15!

When the EU started to expand, a common criticism, not altogether unwarranted, was levelled at the institution. The demands of agricultural standardisation looked as if it would reduce agricultural varieties manyfold from hundreds to handfuls! Although some of the older perspectives are still seen, the advent of agricultural conservation has demanded a move towards more sensitive approaches ( a move obviously followed by pressure groups).

With all this detail going on it is tempting to think that we have the process covered but decades in conservation science and education leave me sceptical. There is always more we can do, not least to educate our students into the full panoply of conservation perspectives. We might have a Svalbard vault but is it a sign of successful conservation or a failure to convince a wider world to be more careful about in-situ design? I am left with a hopeful idea – that farmers and governments and seed banks might come together for the common good.

Update! – it looks like the first seeds are arriving:

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