Photo by Avinash Kumar on Unsplash

To Save It, Eat It

Why gene banks aren’t enough to save the world’s food

An early victim of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was the genetic riches of one of the traditional breadbaskets of humanity. In the first months of the conflict, Russian shells hit the Plant Genetic Resources Bank in Kharkiv. Founded in 01908, the gene bank preserved the seeds of 160,000 varieties of crops and plant seeds from around the world, and was the repository for many unique cultivars of Ukrainian barley, peas, and wheat. Tens of thousands of samples, some of them centuries old, were reduced to ash.

“Under Hitler’s Germany, when the whole of Ukraine was under occupation, the Germans did not destroy this collection,” a lead researcher at the institute told the online newspaper The Insider. “They knew their descendants might need it. After all, every country’s food security depends on such banks of genetic resources.”

A similar fate befell one of the world’s most important collections of wheat landraces, as varieties that have adapted to local conditions, often over thousands of years of cultivation, are known. Located in Aleppo, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) kept tens of thousands of varieties of wheat and other food plants, from 128 countries, in cold storage. When the Syrian civil war began in 02011, staff set to work loading 20,000 precious samples of crop varieties, not duplicated in other gene banks, across the borders to Turkey and Lebanon.

“It was looted,” Ahmed Amri, the director of ICARDA, told me on a video call from the gene bank’s new location in Morocco. “The latest news is that it was completely destroyed.”

Genetic samples from Ukraine's Plant Genetic Resources Bank. Photograph by Tetyana Brivko, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations

Gene banks are a crucial resource for ensuring the world’s food security. They provide back-up specimens of the seeds of the plants, as well as the eggs and semen of the livestock, that nourish humanity. Like public lending libraries, they then distribute these genetic riches free of charge to just anybody who asks. There are 1,750 such institutions around the world, safeguarding everything from yeasts, to olive cultivars, to pig breeds. (My personal favorite is the Puratos Sourdough Library in St-Vith, Belgium, which keeps more than a hundred sourdough starters from around the world, some of them over a century old, bubbling and alive with regular feedings.) But, like nuclear power plants, they are vulnerable to natural disaster, and — as in Ukraine and Syria — can become targets in times of war.

The “Backup of the Backups” is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on an island halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole. Svalbard stores seeds of hundreds of thousands of crop varieties, including 150,000 samples of wheat and rice, in a setting where the average winter lows hover around -4 degrees Fahrenheit. But Svalbard Island is also one of the most rapidly warming places in the world. In 02017, melting permafrost caused the vault’s entrance to flood, though fortunately there was no permanent damage to the collection.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Photograph by Frode Ramon (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Which means that keeping copies of the earth’s genetic riches on ice is, at best, cold comfort. Seeds need to be removed from storage and germinated on a regular basis to remain viable. But in our era of soil degradation, rapidly-evolving pests and pathogens, and a fast-changing climate, there is no guarantee that frozen germplasm will be able to thrive to feed future generations. That’s why we need to foster living diversity in fields and farms. The best we can do for endangered wildlife, from Bengal tigers to sperm whales, is to give them the space to live — in other words, to leave them alone. The best we can do for ancestral grains and forgotten livestock breeds, in contrast, is to cultivate them, and yes, to eat them.

The background to this is the global biodiversity crisis; the rate of species loss, which is hundreds of times faster than it has been in the last 10 million years, has led some to declare we are in the midst of a “sixth extinction.” But few are aware that agrobiodiversity — the range of plants and livestock that feed us — is also in rapid decline. Nearly a tenth of the world’s estimated 8,800 livestock breeds are already extinct. Every month, a half dozen more are lost forever. The same phenomenon afflicts traditional crop varieties. Since 01900, it is estimated that three-quarters of the genetic diversity once stored in farmers’ fields has been lost. The way we farm today, raising vast acreages of crops, many of them genetically modified or scientifically hybridized to maximize yield, leaves them vulnerable to such diseases as wheat rust and corn smut.

While researching my book The Lost Supper, I traveled to Puglia, the bootheel of Italy, where farmers have come to rely on a few varieties of olive to produce extra virgin oil. But now these trees, some of them over 2,000 years old, are succumbing to a bacterium, imported on ornamental coffee plants from Costa Rica, known as Xylella fastidiosa. Much of the region is now a spooky landscape of skeleton forests. The most promising cure comes from wild olive varieties found growing in farmers’ fields, which can be grafted onto trees, to save them from infection. I’ve been to the Olive World Germplasm Bank in Córdoba, Spain, and it is a crucial institution, run by dedicated scientists and technicians. But Puglia’s olive oil industry is being saved not by germplasm, but by the natural variety preserved in fields, orchards, and farms.

Diversity, simply put, is the key to resiliency. That’s true of the microorganisms in the soil beneath our feet, in the microbiome in our guts, and in the variety of foods we eat. In our 300,000 or so years of existence as a species, we have nourished ourselves on a minimum of 10,000 distinct plant species. Today, fewer than 150 are cultivated for consumption. The latest science says that people who consume at least thirty species of plants a week in their diet — most of us get half that number or less — tend to be as disease-free as those who follow a completely vegan diet. Our monocultures, which rob us of the polyphenols, omega-3 fatty acids, and other micronutrients essential for good health, are making us sick. The antidote is to pursue diversity in our diet, and support those food producers who work hard to keep less common varieties alive.

“In Canada and the United States, diversity is largely gone from the field,” says Colin Khoury, a director at the San Diego Botanic Garden who has published extensively on crop biodiversity. “When a farmer grows something, saves the seed, and plants in the next year, you have ongoing evolution. And that gives you the diversity you need for unforeseen issues in the future. The hubris of putting everything in a seed bank — basically freezing diversity — is that you believe you have everything you need for the present and the future.”

In my research, I’ve encountered many good examples of solutions to our diversity and sustainability crisis, most of them rooted in pre-industrial agricultural practices. In Europe and North America, for example, mixed farms practice an age-old form of what is now known as regenerative agriculture or permaculture: pigs, chickens, cattle and other breeds of heritage livestock provide the manure that boosts soil fertility and replaces synthetic fertilizers. An increasing number of farmers in the United States, Canada, and Britain are embracing “no-till” farming, a plough-free method which reduces the amount of synthetic fertilizers and water needed to raise crops, while preserving biodiversity in the field. In Central America, I saw the milpas, or cornfields, where ancient varieties are interplanted with squash and beans, infusing the soil with nitrogen. In Mexico City, chinampas, or “floating gardens,” a form of raised bed agriculture that used to feed millions in Aztec times, continue to allow for several harvests a year. Indigenous communities around the world are storehouses of such traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), from the controlled burns once used in the Americas to manage game and edible plant populations and limit the fuel for wildfires, to the ancient agroforestry methods that have shaped the Amazon basin. All provide startling amounts of calories on limited acreage, while encouraging, rather than detracting from, biodiversity.

The Aztec-originating chinampas, or "floating gardens." Photograph by Karl Weule, Leitfaden der Voelkerkunde, Leipzig 01912

There is a happy conclusion to the story of Kharkiv’s gene bank, one summed up in a proverb common among my own Ukrainian ancestors: “They tried to bury us. But they didn’t know we were seeds.” Late last spring, the parts of the collection untouched by the attack were moved to an undisclosed location in the western part of the country, as far as possible from Putin’s reach. This is an important win, but the true riches of Ukraine lie in the chernozem, the nation’s dark, humus-rich loam, where varieties of beets, barley, potatoes, rye, and bread wheat will continue to evolve — conflict permitting — in an ever-changing environment.

The same is true of every other food-producing region in the world. The soil beneath our feet is the ultimate source of agrobiodiversity, nutrition, and flavor. That soil is now being impoverished by the chemicals needed to bring monocultures to harvest. Don’t get me wrong: gene banks are an essential insurance policy for future food security. But the real way forward is to take the seeds and eggs out of the cold, and get them into the soil, the farms, and the pastures — and, in good time, onto our plates.

Taras Grescoe is the author of The Lost Supper: Searching for the Future of Food in the Flavors of the Past (Greystone, 02023).

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