Seed banks in a secure food system: Journal Club with Hannah Sewell

At this week’s Journal Club, Grantham Scholar Hannah Sewell introduced the group to the role seed banks, while offering an opportunity to reflect on the differences between academic writing and journalism.

This week’s papers

Global Ex-Situ Crop Diversity Conservation and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: Assessing the Current Status’ by O. T. Westengen, S. Jeppson and L. Guarino

How Syrians Saved an Ancient Seedbank From Civil War’ by L. Wade

hannah-sewellThis week in Journal Club we discussed the idea of seed banks and the roles they currently play and could play in ensuring our food system is secure. The paper used to set off the discussion was ‘Global Ex-Situ Crop Diversity Conservation and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault: Assessing the Current Status’ written by Westengen, Jeppson and Guarino, as well as a piece of journalism on the Syrian seed bank called ‘How Syrians Saved an Ancient Seedbank From Civil War’ by Lizzie Wade.

One of the first things I asked the Scholars was if they had been aware of seed banks’ existence and their purpose before being asked to read about them, and in many cases the answer was no. Seed banks are designed to be a store of genetic diversity. Commercial farming uses a very limited number of varieties of seed, with limited genetic diversity. This creates the potential for disaster in the face of climate change, or the rise of new pests or diseases which the seeds used in farming are not resistant to. The idea that a seed bank could help prevent the loss of potentially useful genes was new to some of the Scholars, who had initially wondered why we bothered saving seeds. Many had heard of the Svalbard seed bank but didn’t know what it was used for and had no idea that others existed. Many were impressed to hear about the saving of the Syrian seed bank given that other seed banks in war-torn countries had been effectively destroyed

A lot of our discussion about the seed banks revolved around who owned the seed sent to the banks, which led to discussions on the intellectual property rights attached to seeds and Svalbard’s role in an ‘end of the world’ situation. Svalbard contains seed from countries that would never work together normally – North Korea and the USA both deposit seed – and the ownership rights remain with the seed bank of origin, but what would happen if the country no longer existed? The point was also made that despite Svalbard being touted as a store in case of the world’s end, it is of far more use now as a back-up in case of war and disaster at individual seed banks. In an apocalyptic situation Svalbard does not contain enough of each seed variety for rebuilding nor is it accessible. It would only be of use once the world was rebuilt.

We also had a brief discussion comparing journalist Lizzie Wade’s approach to seed banks with the academic article. While many of the Scholars from fields outside science and engineering said they preferred Wade’s article for Wired, for its ability to give a scientific story a human touch, others felt the scientific article was more useful in educating the Scholars about seed banks due to the larger amount of information contained in it, all of which was backed up by academic sources. I sent both out because I have often felt that the scientific articles we have discussed have been difficult to understand and I thought a piece of journalism would make the idea of seed banks more accessible. I feel the scientific article is more nuanced in explaining the details of seed banks but scientific jargon often puts off non-specialists, so journalistic articles are important for reaching a wider audience.

While genetic diversity and seed banks are not of immediate relevance to most Scholars’ projects, it did have direct links to Nick’s project, as he looks at the diversity of a protein called PEPC and has sent and received stock from Svalbard. Scholars did say they felt they had been introduced to a new interesting idea and even expressed an interest in visiting the Millennium Seedbank at Kew. My own project relies on genetic diversity within the Arabidopsis thaliana plant species and it is interesting to read of how this genetic diversity is found and maintained for the world’s future use.