May 31, 2024 - News

Banking locally for the future of food globally

Photo montage of a student at the USDA seed bank in Pullman and a variety of bean seeds.

A graduate student examines seeds at the USDA's National Plant Germplasm System in Pullman. On the right, a variety of bean seeds are displayed. Photos: Courtesy of Sarah Dohle

Washington state is home to one of the most precious collections of valuables on the planet: seeds that hold living codes for building the world's future food supplies.

Why it matters: Amid seemingly endless bad news about the climate and the death of pollinators, projects like these aim to ensure food in the pipeline no matter what.

How it works: More like a library than a bank, the USDA's National Plant Germplasm System in Pullman stores seeds for critical food and foraging crops in temperature-controlled cabinets, which are ready to send to scientists, breeders and geneticists all over the world, said Sarah Dohle, the project's bean curator.

  • More than 100,000 batches of seeds, including beans, lentils, peas, herbs and medicinals, are sent out for free each year, Dohle told Axios.
  • Researchers then use that genetic material to breed more drought-tolerant and nutritious plants, or simply "sweeter so kids will eat more."
  • "What we send out today will be on your plate in five to ten years," she said.

The big picture: The idea of a seed bank has been around for centuries, said Dohle. Early European explorers, besides collecting seeds from the New World and taking them to the Old, also brought seeds from Asia, Africa and Europe back on their return.

  • Among the world's some 1,700 seed banks, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault — a "doomsday" reserve buried deep within a Norwegian mountain that can store over 1.2 million duplicate seed samples for 25 years without power — is one of the best known.

What's next: The Pullman seed bank — one of 20 such banks in the USDA system — is starting a new pilot to identify beans that grow well in home gardens with web platform SeedLinked, which has a network of over 10,000 citizen scientist volunteers who test plants.

What they're saying: "Biodiversity in seed systems is key to climate resilience, nutrition, cultural diversity, and local economies," Nico Enjalbert, co-founder and CEO of SeedLinked, told Axios in an email.

  • "Yet, 60% of our calories come from 3 crops. SeedLinked connects growers and breeders to reverse this trend … and develop resilient, locally adapted varieties."
  • To learn more or sign up for a collaborative trial, click here.
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