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Preserving genetic diversity in food crops

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

In order to preserve the genetic diversity of food crops, many small-scale farmer sand growers are saving seeds from what are called “heritage” varieties. While this grass roots effort is commendable, organization and communications between seed savers is informal at best and seed preservation techniques and facilities may not be up to par for long term storage. There are also commercial and non-profit organizations from which one can obtain heritage seed.

One such non-profit is the Seed Savers Exchange listed here, which, for example, lists 83 different varieties of tomato seed for sale. On a larger scale, many governments, commercial entities, and NGOs have created special seed banks. Our government maintains seeds at the U.S. National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation, headquartered at Fort Collins, CO, with branches in a variety of different growing locations and environments. The seed is stored at optimum (typically low) temperature and humidity, some even cryogenically. Although some seed is still viable after years or even centuries, all lose vigor over time. Then they must be replanted and new seed harvested for renewed storage. If that sounds involved wait until you read about the “Doomsday Seed Vault”!

A seemingly strange coalition of Bill Gates, Monsanto and Syngenta (the latter two being among the world’s dominant creators of Genetically Modified , GM seed) and the Norwegian government have spent millions on the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, situated on a remote Norwegian island about 700 miles from the North Pole. The vault is deep within a mountain on the island and fitted with blast proof doors, airlocks and thick reinforced concrete walls. Intended to contain up to three million seed varieties, it is designed to withstand global catastrophes, including climate change and even a nuclear blast! If I have piqued your interest, you can find out more here. And for a more sinister interpretation of what is going on (reads almost like a spy novel) check this out.

And speaking of GMOs, that is the other topic this week. I am not going to take sides on whether or not they are a good idea, but I think we should be aware of their possible effects on plant diversity. GMOs are typically designed to bring to the fore some particular characteristic of a plant. Looking at Monsanto’s GM version of its canola seed, for example, the desired characteristic was for the crop to be impervious to the effects of “Roundup”, a very potent (possibly carcinogenic)herbicide with lethality for a broad range of plants considered weeds. By making their crop impervious, farmers can easily crush the weed population by indiscriminate application of the herbicide, leaving just the canola growing in the fields. Dismissing for the moment the detrimental effects of releasing large amounts of herbicides on the environment, let’s look at its effects on genetic diversity when cross pollination with wild or non-GM canola plants. It is possible that the resulting hybrid might have some superior survival characteristic as compared to its wild ancestor. Certainly, this would be the case if it encountered a herbicide similar to Roundup. Over a period of time, with continued hybridization, the attributes of the wild stain might fade from existence.

The other problem with GMOs is that the favored characteristics are chosen by a large, profit oriented organization and those attributes may not necessarily coincide with the desires of the general consumer. Also, since the GMOs are now patentable, growers are always on the hook to buy seed each year as they are generally prohibited from saving seed from the original crop. And the saving of seed by farmers whose non-GM crops have been accidentally cross pollinated by neighboring GM populations has resulted in expensive litigations for patent infringement.

- Frank Fazekas August 17, 2020

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