A recent episode of the dramatized history show, “Dark Matters” told the true story of Russian scientists who died of famine to protect their Leningrad seed bank, which then contributed to saving the lives of millions. Unlike the heroes in the story, seed banks aren’t dying out. They’re, well, growing.
Bank on It
Why were scientists willing to die for their seeds, and why does it matter today? Why would anyone sock away seeds like they do their retirement funds? Well, the money you put into your retirement fund is similar to banking those seeds, but for Mother Nature. The idea is that these tiny bits of life can provide satiation for an incalculable amount of people. “Seeds provide the kind of security to agriculture-oriented people that gold provides to the money-minded,” writes Ari LeVaux on AlterNet.
Financial bankruptcy may send chills down your spine, but food bankruptcy may make your stomach do more than clench up. According to the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens, 80 percent of the world’s plant-based food consuming comes from only 12 crops (8 grains and 4 tubers). If only those 12 crops were eliminated, without thought to preserve their seeds, 80 percent of the world’s food source would disappear. Conversely, the entire world would then be competing for 20 percent of the remaining food.
A thriving example of a seed bank is located in Petaluma, California. Known as the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Bank, the facility is home to between 1,200 and 1,400 seed varieties at any time. The bank is open to the public all year long and offers only non-GMO and natural seeds, as well as instructional material and handmade gifts. Baker Creek boasts one of the largest collections of seeds from the 19th century and mails a free color catalog to 310,000 gardeners every year. Like other seed banks, Baker Creek is rooted in Earth-friendly and community-friendly practices. It supplies seeds to local Sonoma County schools and refuses membership in the GMO-friendly American Seed Trade Organization. Its seeds come from 100 small farming organizations in 70 different countries.
Each seed bank operates slightly differently, but one place to start is with a nearby university, especially one known for its agricultural technology programs. For example, Arizona State University’s Desert Legume Program mails seeds for free and offers a free searchable list of its holdings. Availability changes, but as of December 2012, the alphabetical “M” section included wild Chilean Macroptilium atropurpureum, cultivated Arizonian Macrotyloma ellipticum, and wild Argentian Mimosa farinosa.