Somewhere deep in the remote reaches of the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, lies a huge underground facility running deep into the frozen ground which would be the envy of any James Bond supervillain.

But rather than a well-defended lair harbouring the machinations of an evil genius seeking world domination, the Global Seed Vault houses what amounts to a back-up from most of the world’s important genebanks of crop seeds.

World food supply

This ‘doomsday’ facility is aimed at providing some level of security to the important part crops play in the world’s food supply in the event that other facilities suffer natural or manmade disasters such as accidents, mismanagement, equipment failures, funding cuts, or war.

And the sub-zero temperatures deep in the rock of the island offer a safe haven for rare crops in the shape of a seed ark designed to protect the Earth’s biodiversity in case of Armageddon.

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And with the fertile crescent where many of our staple crops originated being situated in some of the more politically stormy areas of the Middle East, the effects of the civil war in Syria on the ICARDA seed bank of cultivated and wild varieties showed just how vulnerable these facilities can be to unrest – and, so far, the replacement for the facility has been the only one to make a ‘withdrawal’ from the seedbank.

Climate change challenge

The most recent count indicates that the seed vault conserves genetic material from close to 1.3m different species covering pretty much the entire gamut of agriculture’s 13,000-year history – representing a hugely valuable asset as the additional pressures of climate change challenge the limits of our current cultivars.

Closer to home, the Hutton’s Professor Colin Campbell used last week’s International Potato Day to extol the virtues of what he termed the institute’s ‘jewel in the crown’ – the Commonwealth Potato Collection.

Acting as custodian of the collection, The James Hutton Institute houses what’s termed a ‘genetic treasure trove’ of more than 1300 different types of potato, representing over 90 different species. “Each accession traces back to a handful of berries or tubers collected from potato plants in South or Central America, gathered from the wild, or obtained from growers at a market,” said Professor Campbell.

“This collection covers a vast array of species and genes that are supremely able to thrive in diverse and challenging environmental conditions, and we use novel trait discovery techniques and are able to breed from these hardier species to create new varieties.”


So these genebanks of often rare and fragile stocks are set to play a hugely important role in developing varieties for the future.

But a fellow scientist from the same institute reminded me that seedbanks aren’t the only way of conserving the genetic diversity which we’re likely to need as the challenges of growing – and the trials of the marketplace – make ever more demands on all the crops we grow.

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Writing in a recent blog to celebrate World Biodiversity Day, Hutton scientist Dr Pete Iannetta highlighted the fact that while most folk viewed the term ‘biodiversity’ as one that applies to wildlife, it plays an equally import role in our cropping sector.

And he pointed out that a number of crops which were well suited to Scotland’s climate and growing conditions and which were once widely grown are currently under severe threat.

‘Forgotten foods’ such as bere barley and Henry Taylor’s ‘Scottish Bean’ – an early ripening variety suited to Scotland’s climate – along with other traditional varieties had all been bred and developed to yield well in Scotland’s climate and to cope with our local pest and disease pressures.

Environmental stresses

And it’s true that many of these Scottish cultivars have been largely sidelined by mainstream growers – a situation which has become common around the globe, with 60% of human calories currently being reliant on just four crops: rice, wheat, maize and potatoes.

“Yet, revitalised, homegrown, forgotten foods could play a significant role in diversifying diets with unique tastes, nutrition and health values,” Dr Iannetta wrote, adding that they also brought the additional benefit of offering the potential to harness greater resilience to environmental stresses.

In traditional systems, seed that was saved and resown over the generations resulted in locally-adapted varieties known as landraces which, although perhaps not matching the high yields of modern crop varieties, did produce relatively stable yields on marginal land in the absence of many of today’s inputs.

And increasingly it’s being recognised that these strengths could be utilised to help breed new crops for the more sustainable food system of the future including being more resilient to changing weather patterns – provided the dynamic seedbank of actually sowing and harvesting the crops continues.

New techniques

But the fact is that many of these locally-adapted varieties are under threat due to a lack of any incentives for farmers to maintain traditional agricultural systems – and the first step to saving them would be to identify and evaluate just how close to brink they are.

So maybe it’s time to start drawing up some sort of Red List for these endangered locally-adapted crops, just like the ones used to highlight which wild animals and plant species are threatened with extinction – and then maybe offering some proper incentives for maintaining biodiversity in a form which could provide real and lasting benefits to food production as well as to the natural world.

For while we might be keen to place a great deal of faith in the ability of our scientists to use cutting-edge technologies to harness genetic improvements through techniques such as gene editing, the focus has been closely placed on harnessing genes which already occur naturally in a species, rather than the more cavalier attitude of inserting genes which was adopted in the early days of GMOs – and led to the ‘Frankenstein’ headlines.

And with a whole plethora of new techniques now available to identify the presence of specific traits in different genotypes, it would be madness to lose the benefits which may well exist within crop biodiversity, just as we are on the cusp of being able to make some use of it.

As all the big retailers say at sale time, ‘once they’re gone, they’re gone…’