Doomsday Seed Banking…


The Seed Underground:
A Growing Revolution to Save Food (2012)

When they want you to buy something, they will call you. When they want you to die for profit, they will let you know. So, friends, every day, do something that won’t compute. ~Wendell Berry

In 2008, Norway finished construction of a strange structure that reporters began to call the Doomsday Vault. Norwegians bored a tunnel into a solid-stone mountain in the permafrost on an island some seven hundred miles south of the North Pole and lined it with a meter’s width of reinforced concrete. They, essentially, built a structure to last forever. They built it to withstand just about anything.

Why would Norway and its global partners build such a thing? To answer this question, we have to imagine scenarios that might precipitate the need to replenish foodstuffs globally. Suppose genetic engineering goes wild. Suppose a comet hits the earth. Suppose climate change rearranges agriculture as we currently practice it. Suppose seas rise?

The global seed bank was built to withstand even climate change. The tunnel was positioned high on a mountainside, 430 feet above sea level—130 feet higher than seawater is expected to rise in global warming’s worst-case scenario, even if the polar icecaps melt. Tsunami waters won’t reach it. Inside this remote and invincible mountain, the Norwegians are stashing seeds from all over the world, four million kinds of them.

There, in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the temperature is permanently below freezing, about 23ºF. Refrigeration units lower the temperature further, to about -4ºF. At this temperature, seeds stored in watertight and airtight foil packages last anywhere from fifty to two thousand years, depending on the type.

No matter what tomorrow brings—be it natural disaster or civil unrest, war or industrial accident or atomic bomb, or even genetic tinkering gone awry—the Norwegians hope their ark is impenetrable. “Seeds are not just seeds,” said Jens Stotenberg, Norway’s prime minister, speaking of the new vault and at least paying lip service to the idea of seed saving, “but the fundamental building blocks of human civilization.”

The Doomsday Vault is a gene bank, which, as Cary Fowler (Seed Savers Exchange board member at the time and executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization that actively promoted the vault) has pointed out, is a fancy word for a freezer. Faced with a dwindling diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives, gene banks are coming into favor as bomb shelters for agriculture.

But the idea of a frozen vault in Scandanavia made one young farmer chuckle when he read about it. Daniel Botkin is cofouder of a three-acre family operation called Laughing Dog Farm in Gill, Massachusetts. In a blog entry he called the global gene bank “sexy.” “The bigger task,” he eloquently wrote, “is to decentralize society’s entire relationship to agriculture, seeds, food production, and food security.”

Gene bankers want seeds to continue as badly as do the home seed guardians. Seeds, however, cannot be kept forever like stacks of gold ingots. Seed must be conserved in situ, on farms and in gardens. They die otherwise. A foolproof seed vault in the Arctic Circle, where seed copies are kept, may get us through a catastrophe, but is not reliable for long-term genetic preservation. Scientists estimate that half of the seeds in the 1,400 seed banks worldwide are in desperate need of being grown out.

A garden is a living gene bank.

Gene bankers tend to be suspicious of gardens. When seeds are grown out they risk exposure to environmental pressures, such as a colder or warmer or wetter or drier growing season, which may force adaptations on a plant. Those being grown out are subject to the risks of cross-pollnation. And, of course, a disastrous enough pressure, like a hurricane, and the seeds could be destroyed or lost altogether.

Gene banks are mostly interested in preserving genetic material. As Gary Banhan explained in a 2005 interview with Arty Mangan of Bioneers, “Gene banks are genetic conservation projects.” Gene banks do nothing to spread resources that, as Nabhan declares, were historically shared in systems of reciprocity. Traditional societies traded seeds to keep a variety going. For the Cherokee nation, for example, November was the Month of the Trading Moon (nu da de qua), a time of swapping between towns and tribe, and one must assume that the Cherokee, understanding the importance of trading in order to enlarge and enliven genetic resources, would swap seeds during the Trading Moon.

Gardeners, especially seed savers, are preserving names, stories, heritage, place, cuisine. Their aim is to retain the “culture” in “agriculture,” rather than stripping it away, scientifically reducing it to mere germplasm. Gardeners want to regenerate seeds as often as possible, because seeds mean food and because gardeners often welcome adaptations.

The gene bank school of security is akin to people who think we’ll be safer with a bigger military, more locks on the door, and a gun under the pillow. The Nabhan school of thought, on the other hand, believes that we’re safer when we’re out in the world, interacting with and attempting to understand the world and each other.

On a national level, the USDA maintains gene banks as part of a program called the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), whose mission is to acquire, preserve, evaluate, document, and distribute crop germplasm. However, the system is a network—as it freely admits—of federal, state, and private entities; “private industry underwrites selected projects,” admits its website. If one reads the mission statement really closely, small farmers will not see themselves in it. NPGS is developing “new knowledge and technology,” meaning that they believe that time-honored, simple, grassroots technology is not enough. NPGS believes in “a competitive food economy.”

Mainly the NPGS doesn’t bother with penny-ante growers like me; they deal with seed companies or university scientists who need stock for breeding. But recently I was able to talk the system out of another seed I’d lost.

Remember the jack bean—that inch-long, eyeball-like bean, like a black-eye on steroids—that my grandmother had given me when I was a little girl? I could not find it in any source I checked. John Swenson told me that the bean was curated at the Southern Plant Genetic Resources Conservation Unit in Griffin, Georgia. “I am looking to obtain an accession of Canavalia ensiformis, commonly known as Jack bean,” I wrote. “I see that you have this variety in your Taxa list. How could I go about obtaining this?” Brad Morris wrote back that he would need to know what type of research I was planning and the name of my organization.

I had a ruse ready:

I’d like to do some research on the possibility of using the bean as a mulch, either a living mulch, or perhaps the breakdown crop in no-till agriculture. Perhaps the bean could be scythed after growth is complete, so that it fixes nitrogen and also becomes the mulch that stays on the ground.

I want to experiment with it in a larger organic gardening system, such as a quarter-acre, to try to determine its value in the South in cover-cropping for both nutrients and water retention. Since it is native to India, I am interested in its potential in the southern United States. We are seeing dramatic changes in climate as a result of global warming and climate destabilization, and we are looking at possibilities for the future.

I am interested only in the white-seeded form of Canavalia ensiformis, also called horse bean, Overlook, and sometimes sword bean. I will experiment with eating the young pods of the plant, although in large amounts the mature beans are said to be toxic. I also want to see how farm animals react to them as feed.

In the end, I didn’t write any of that. Did I really intend to experiment with our goats? Or my family? Instead, I wrote a simple request. “I am a nature writer and I am doing a project on heirloom seeds. Jack bean was the first bean my grandmother gave me when I was a kid. I would like to grow them again and I was given your contact info as a place to obtain them. Do I need to outline a study or is it enough that I am a writer and would like to grow these beans again?”

When the beans arrived, a little card with them said the accession had come from Costa Rica.

I have grown Jack beans every year since. Their story is relevant to my own. It helps define me. I’m exultant that a gene bank kept them alive during my own climate crisis, when the seas rose around me, and I’m pleased that it returned them to me when I was ready to take care of them again…

Janisse Ray