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Seed Banks or Seed Morgues? Salvaging Crop Diversity from the Seed Bank
Svalbard Seed Bank
The 1960s and 70s saw growing international concern over the loss of crop plant diversity. This loss was thought to result from the expansion of industrial agriculture and especially the transition of poorer farmers from traditional local varieties to "improved" commercial lines. Experts further acknowledged that decades of collecting activities, in which these older varieties had been targeted because of their perceived value to breeding programs, had produced mostly ephemeral assemblages of poorly understood, badly catalogued material. As I describe in this talk, mounting concerns about the loss of diversity and recognition of the failures of earlier collection initiatives generated a new conservation imperative. Now the goal was not just to gather extant varieties whose presence in farm fields was increasingly precarious, but also to collect extant collections into a global master collection. An "international germplasm bank" or "international seed bank" would provide long-term security for all crops and for all breeders--ideally, for all time. I argue that one cannot understand today's international agro-biodiversity conservation system, including the iconic master "back-up" collection at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, nor appreciate its shortcomings, without first understanding this earlier history.
Helen Anne Curry is Peter Lipton Senior Lecturer in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Churchill College, and a CRASSH ProFutura Scientia Fellow (2017-2020). She is the author of Evolution Made to Order: Plant Breeding and Technological Innovation in Twentieth Century America (University of Chicago Press, 2016) and co-editor of Worlds of Natural History (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2018). Her current research considers the history of global conservation, in particular efforts made to preserve the genetic diversity of agricultural crop species through the practice of seed banking.