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Letters 09-22-2014

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Home · Articles · News · Features · Saving the world‘s seed...
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Saving the world‘s seed crops

Harley Sachs - July 6th, 2006
In the science fiction novel “The Death of Grass,” all the world’s grasses are killed by a plant disease. That means no wheat, barley, corn, and other grains. Not only does that mean no bread for humans, it means no grass for animals that feed on it, like cattle. With the disappearance of all grasses comes the death of all herds of ruminating animals. Though no such all-encompassing plant disease exists today, there are others which can be almost as devastating and a threat to our survival.
According to a report by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a wheat fungus or “rust” has spread from Uganda to Kenya and Ethiopia and threatens 55 percent of the yield in those areas. It has also turned up in India and Pakistan where it could cripple India’s 21.6 million ton wheat crop.
The same potato blight that brought on death by starvation of over a million Irish in the 19th century has turned up in Alaska three times in the last 10 years and in Bangladesh where it destroyed half the crop. The Irish were particularly susceptible to that crop failure because they grew only five varieties of potatoes and it was the staple of their diet.
The apple, too, the most cultivated of all fruit trees, is threatened by a virus-like phytoplasma and fire blight. The latter has shown up recently in Italy.
Unlike the science fiction story, these dangers are real.
Besides diseases, the disappearance of a major food crop can also be brought about by climate change and war. Global warming is threatening 10 important food crops in sub-Saharan Africa. Our television screens have been full of pictures of starving Africans. In World War II when Leningrad was under siege by the Germans, the Russians were starving. People resorted to cannibalism, but in spite of the starvation, the Soviet guardians of the seed crop archive would rather die themselves than eat those precious stocks.
Plant diversity is a key to the development of new, disease-resistant species of food crops, but just as our diverse forests are being cut and replanted with only the fastest-growing timber species, farmers today rely more and more on genetically-engineered crops like those made by Monsanto -- crops that are resistant to Round-Up weed killer but will not produce germinating seeds, making farmers reliant on Monsanto for their future crops.
Because of the dangers of losing our basic food crops, there are about 1,400 seed banks around the world. Some are limited in their scope. Others are neglected and at risk of closing down.
To head off that danger, the Global Crop Diversity Trust has set up an Arctic vault for the preservation of seeds. The seed vault is worthy of a science fiction plot itself. It’s located near Longyearbyen in the Svalbard islands only about 620 miles from the North Pole. There, dug into the permafrost, with concrete walls three feet thick, up to three million seed samples will be stored against some future emergency.
The project is supported by Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland and will cost about three million dollars. It must be secure against the weather and against human interlopers. Besides being fenced and securely locked, this refrigerated chamber is in polar bear country, so any trespassers may turn into a meal themselves.
The idea is that even if the refrigeration system fails, the permafrost will not let the temperature in the Svalband International Seed Vault ever get above 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Seeds stored there can remain viable for hundreds of years.
Of course, not all crops are reproduced from seeds. The potato is replanted with cuttings and cannot be kept in that frigid arctic vault. Potato cuttings must be saved somewhere else.
The “doomsday vault” sounds like the setting for a novel as bizarre as “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” with its mysterious radioactive worms in Greenland, but this location is real. Without a diversity of seeds preserved for future breeding, those less popular but important disease resistant strains of wheat, apples, and other crops may be lost and with them the chance to substitute susceptible crops for something that survives. You may have noticed that the older, traditional strains of apples you used to buy have been replaced by apples that are tough enough to withstand automatic packing machinery and long delivery times, but may not taste very good. Many old apple breeds have disappeared.
The Arctic seed vault may well be the insurance policy for the human race, a ticket out of mass starvation brought on by plant diseases like wheat rust..

Visit the web site www.hu.mtu.edu/~hlsachs where you can listen to two stories, read a third, read reviews, and find links to the publishers of my books.

 
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