26 MB – 30 min
Lance White of the “Zany Mystic” show on BBS Radio interviews Dr. Michael P. Mau about the current situation in the world on July 2, 2011.
Seeds are currency at CSU bank
Billions are tucked away at this bank, stored in row upon row of white bags inside the 12-inch-thick, tornado-proof walls of the triple-locked vault.
Billions of seeds.
Maize, tomatoes, chickpeas, hops, beets, cotton, lettuce, squash, rice. If it grows anywhere in the world, its seeds are likely here, safeguarded like gold in a federal stronghold often referred to as the Fort Knox of seeds.
This diverse collection of pinhead to pod-size seeds is more important than ever as scientists cope with a changing climate, growing threats from industrial farming and the need to develop plant-based fuel sources.
Global warming is predicted by some seed-physiology scientists
- View a slide show of images from the Fort Collins laboratory.
to wipe out as much as 40 percent of the world’s crops, according to Kathryn Kennedy, director of the St. Louis-based Center for Plant Conservation, a longtime user of the seed bank.
Plant breeders and researchers will turn here for the seeds to produce the crops adapted to new climatic conditions.
“We have always tried to stay three steps ahead, but with global warming, we’re concerned three steps may not be enough,” said Christine Walters, a plant physiologist and self-described seed nerd at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation.
That is the official name of the Fort Collins seed bank; its related animal germplasm collection, where animal DNA is stored; and research quarters that sit in a nondescript tan building in the middle of the Colorado State University campus.
The building gets few glances from backpack-toting students hurrying by without a clue that the thing that could stand between them and a disaster like the 19th-century Irish potato famine is locked away in this building.
But the bank is known to the plant scientists around the world who have used it for nearly 50 years. Seeds are sought here when wheat scabs,
plum poxes, potato blights and citrus cankers threaten crops. The seeds have provided backup when wars, typhoons and drought wrought vegetative havoc. And this bank has become indispensable to researchers looking for new biofuel varieties, crops with increased nutrition and plants with medicinal properties.
A busy hive of seed activities
Inside the bank is a busy hive of technicians with tweezers and microscopes bent over bits of vegetation looking for the healthiest specimens, and workers rolling carts of bagged and barcoded seeds. Indeed, “Got seed?” bumper stickers decorate doors.
In the vault at the heart of the center are a 5,000-square-foot, deep-freeze chamber of 700,000 varieties of handpicked seeds and a sci-fi chamber of cryogenic vats holding thousands of shoots and buds the size of parsley flakes.
Global warming seems a distant threat in a vault kept at nostril-pinching zero degrees Fahrenheit.
Seed technician Pat Conine bundles up in an oversized puffy parka before she goes inside to explain that the cold is necessary so seeds won’t germinate and can stay viable for centuries.
The diversity of seeds here trumps the other 11 major seed banks in the world as well as the 1,460 lesser seed depositories spread among 150 countries. Parent seeds of all the modern hybridized crops are here, and 40,000 new types of seeds are added every year.
The endangered native seeds that the Center for Plant Conservation collects are so rare that Kennedy has deposited them at the Fort Collins seed bank to safeguard a future for dwindling plants such as Pecos sunflower, Texas wild rice and Okeechobee gourds.
Omnipresent cameras and locks
With its omnipresent video cameras and vault locks, Fort Collins’ seed bank may be one the most secure in the world. But the seeds are not in permanent lockup.
In fact, Walters said she prefers to think of the bank as more of a library. Unlike the new, attention-getting “doomsday” seed bank dug into the permafrost of Svalbard, Norway, to be the ultimate seed backup, seeds go in and out of the Fort Collins site. About 150,000 seed samples were sent out last year.
In past years, rice seed has helped bring food production back to Cambodia after the crop was decimated under despotic rule and to Malaysia after a tsunami destroyed paddies. Bean seed has been instrumental in feeding war-torn Rwanda. Apple seed brought a New England variety back to viability when a blight killed trees there.
Seed-bank curator David Ellis is concerned that one of the worse things on the horizon is a creeping-up thermometer. The areas where certain crops will grow are likely to shrink. Soils could become poorer. Pests could increase.
“Global warming is critical for what we do,” he said. “We will be faced with issues we’ve never faced.”
That threat is compounded by “mono culture” crops – giant fields of one strain of wheat or corn, for example – which are more susceptible to one particular pathogen wreaking widespread havoc. Also, a pathogen or pest could be spread far, wide and fast through global commerce.
Already, the 8,000 crop varieties that were growing in the U.S. in the early 1900s have dwindled to 600.
Crop loss means seed loss, and that can mean the end of varieties with particular resistance to a scary-sounding litany of plant problems such as foolish seedling disease, a scourge that causes plants to elongate rapidly, fall over and die; mal de Rio Cuarto, a virus that stunts corn plants; and potato late blight, the fungus that turns potatoes into rotting goo and the one that caused starvation in Ireland in in the mid- to late 1840s, killing more than a million people.
Pat Byrne, a CSU associate professor and wheat geneticist, makes frequent withdrawals from the seed bank as he looks for ways to outwit the Russian wheat aphid and wheat-streak mosaic virus and tries to boost the nutritive value of the staff of life.
He said without the bank he would have to go begging in countries such as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, where wheat crops with traits he needs are grown.
“These days it would be hard to request those seeds,” he said.
Some seed banks not safe at all
Some of the other banked seeds around the world are not safe at all. Seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were ransacked during war. A seed bank in the Philippines was flooded. A power failure destroyed a root and tuber collection in Cameroon.
At the same time, those who recognize the irreplaceable value of seeds have made heroic efforts to save them by smuggling them out of war zones or away from the path of natural disasters.
The most mythic seed save happened during World War II after Adolf Hitler blockaded food supplies into Russia.
Researchers chose to starve rather than eat the stocks of peanuts and rice stored with other seeds at a Leningrad bank.
Seed-bank protectors such as Walters, a seed-bank researcher for more than 20 years, and Conine, who has been at the bank for 30 years, say they can understand that level of seed reverence as they rush to stockpile the seeds that will thrive on a warmer Earth.
“There is no one in this building who isn’t passionate about seeds,” Conine said. “We know that what we are doing is really, really important.”
BY THE NUMBERS
other major seed banks worldwide
U.S. crop varieties
bags of maize seed at CSU
new seed types added each year to CSU bank
bags of wheat seed at CSU
bags of rice seed at CSU
seed samples CSU sent out last year
seed varieties at CSU bank
seed collections in banks worldwide