What are seed banks, and how do they work?

This is the first article in a three-part series produced in partnership with the Crop Trust exploring how seed banks are protecting the world’s food future. Read the rest of the series to learn about the history of millet and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault .

It took modern humans 12,000 years to develop and perfect agriculture, but only 200 to upend the world’s climate.

With some 40 percent of the world’s plant species now at risk of extinction, we are jeopardizing our own ability to grow crops amid worsening droughts, floods and land degradation – and with it, the ability to feed a growing global population.

One solution is rising to the fore as an insurance policy against the permanent loss of crop and tree species, particularly after natural disasters and wars: seed banks.

Variously described as Fort Knoxes, doomsday vaults and arks of apocalypse, they’re often associated with impenetrable, high-tech facilities out of an action film.

But what exactly are seed banks, and how do they work? How can governments make sure they’re properly funded and connected with farmers to keep our landscapes and food systems healthy? Read on to find out.

What are seed banks?

Seed banks are a type of genebank that stores seeds from a variety of different crops and trees. Their main purpose is to conserve the world’s genetic resources and their extraordinary diversity for use by scientists, plant breeders and farmers around the globe.

For example, plant breeders can use that gene stock to develop new crop varieties that are more resilient to impacts of the climate crisis, like increased drought, flooding, pests and changes in nutrient availability. By creating new varieties of crops and increasing species diversity, breeders can protect rural livelihoods and global food security from climate shocks.

Agroforestry and forest restoration efforts also call for greater diversity at the species and molecular level, but it can be difficult to collect, store and distribute tree seeds from wild species with enough genetic variability. By responding to that need, seed banks can help restore landscapes to health and protect a variety of food sources and ecosystem functions.

Seed banks can operate at the global, national or community level. Regardless of scale, they are all complementary and help preserve agrobiodiversity and build the resilience of food systems in their own ways.

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Why is it important to preserve our world’s crop diversity?

What is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault?

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault aims to keep a duplicate of every seed housed in the over 1,700 other banks around the world, including varieties of rice, grains and tubers.

Built in an archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the long-term storage facility built on permafrost stores more than 1.14 million seed samples from around 6,000 species. It has a maximum capacity of 4.5 million varieties of crops and 2.5 billion seeds.

Collections are kept at a constant temperature of -18 degrees Celsius, but even frozen seeds eventually decay and die. That means that storage must be complemented by constant maintenance and active use of seeds: they must be tested for viability after a certain number of years and periodically planted, reproduced and replaced.

The vault, which opened in 2008 to serve the global community, is owned by the Norwegian government and managed with support from the Crop Trust, an organization dedicated to conserving crop diversity and making it available for use globally.

To learn more, read our feature article on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

What are some other important seed banks around the world?

One of the oldest seed banks in the world is the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, established in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1921. Following the devastation of World War II, seeds from the bank were used to restore crops all over the Soviet Union.

In the U.S., Agricultural Genetic Resources Preservation Research hosts the national plant germplasm system collection, based in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s responsible for preserving the world’s largest repository of plant and microbial genetic resources stored under one roof.

Meanwhile, the Millennium Seed Bank in West Sussex, England, is the world’s most diverse wild plant genetic resource, containing 2.4 billion seeds from around 16 percent of all species.

Genebank of the International Rice Research Institute.

Photo: Crop Trust

The Crop Trust’s Executive Director, Marie Haga, visits the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia

ICARDA genebank in Rabat, 2023.

Photo: Manon Konigstein for the Crop Trust

ICARDA genebank in Rabat, 2023.

Photo: Manon Konigstein for the Crop Trust

April 2018: The Crop Trust visits the International Potato Center in Lima, Peru.

The participants of the 2016 Barcoding Workshop visit the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben, Germany.

What are the main challenges facing seed banks?

Seed banks can be affected by issues like political stability, unreliable energy supply and a dearth of well-trained staff, but one of the biggest concerns to experts is securing predictable, long-term funding for all facilities.

Seed banks are neither projects, which are short-term by nature, nor museums keeping musty seeds in curio cabinets, said speakers in a recent GLF Live. Instead, they require constant maintenance to conserve and use the world’s crop diversity – not for five years or for 50, but in perpetuity.

The Crop Diversity Endowment Fund provides a sustainable financing mechanism that invests capital – mainly government donations – in low-risk financial instruments and uses the returns to support gene banks around the world.

The Crop Trust estimates that an endowment fund of USD 850 million would generate enough annual returns to guarantee that crop diversity will be available in perpetuity.

What are community seed banks?

International seed vaults save specimens from around the world, but they cannot keep up with the huge diversity of locally adapted varieties.

Enter community seed banks, which preserve the varieties that are best suited to their local area. These varieties have high levels of genetic diversity, meaning they can better withstand and adapt to changing environmental conditions to protect food sovereignty and security.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), community seed banks may help farmers, particularly poor smallholders, buy rare, local varieties that are difficult to obtain through formal seed systems, expensive, or not always in stock.

By maintaining the availability of quality seeds, which are often selected for traits such as early maturity and drought tolerance, they can help farmers obtain inputs for the next planting season, while providing a safety net if crops are destroyed.

Community seed banks first appeared in the late 1980s with the support of national and international NGOs and have since grown in number around the world. In Nepal, for example, there are more than 100 self-described community seed banks.

Text by Gloria Pallares
Produced by Eden Flaherty