Fighting The Shift With Seedbanks

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that 25-30% of plant species will be extinct or endangered in the next century. Any way you cut it - that is a very bad thing. Many of those plant species will be crops - food we eat. Some of you may have caught the announcement of the "Doomsday Vault" in the news recently: a vault located 600 miles south of the North Pole on a Swedish Island designed to safeguard seeds from climate change, wars, and other on-coming disasters.

The icy island of Spitsbergen is home to about 2,000 miners and researchers. In a few years, it will be also home to some 1.5 million varieties of seed crops. Over the next five years or so, the seed stockpilers hope to amass seeds from virtually all the recognized varieties of 150 crop species routinely grown and eaten by humans, including the 100,000 varieties of rice (rice accounts for 20% of all calories eaten worldwide).

But, is the Doomsday Vault just a band-aid to a larger issue? Obvisouly such a vault can't help preserve livestock breeds or in many cases the ecoystems that exist side-by-side many crop and livestock systems, interacting in complex ways. Then again, maybe the Vault will inspire. Inspire us to conserve our seeds and natural heritage.

We certainly need more inspiration to safeguard both our native and commensal biodiversity. It is a simliar story with livestock that it is with plants, although the former are much more difficult to stockpile. The United Nations has reported that 16% of the world's 7,600 recorded indigenous breeds of cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry are at risk of disappearing, and 11% have already gone extinct.

While seed and livestock banks can help, including the new North Pole vault, in the end the farm will be the real battleground. That is where the fight to save or our food diversity will be won or lost.

See Michael Pollan's new book In the Defense of Food for some strategy.


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