Seeds are the Wealth of Any Nation

Author: Margot McMahon, Yale Class of ‘84
Location: Anywhere

Personal Action

I wasn’t a seed saver until Spring of 2020 when all leafy green seeds were sold out at the local food coop, the hardware store and the grocery. What, no spinach or kale this year? It’s not that I didn’t think about saving seeds and felt guilty for throwing them out. I just couldn’t give it the band width. My lovely, generous kids called NO MORE! to grocery shopping for us and every trip to the grocery became fear inducing. I didn’t feel old enough to go during senior hours, but also didn’t want the rush after 8:00 am. If it was hard to buy my regular seeds this year, what will next year be like?  I started to save every seed that poured out of my tomato and cucumber slices and slide them onto a paper towel to dry.  A friend said, “use newspaper-the black and white pages are made from soy ink.”

Seed saving from daily cooking became a daily habit that kept growing.  After cutting into a squash I gathered all the seeds and tossed them under fresh compost. -they grew without being dried! The seeds, dripped on newspapers, were allowed to dry in a cool cupboard. After about a week, I funneled the seeds in small glass jelly jars that keeps moisture from penetrating (plastic jars allow water vapor in) and set those in a cool dark cupboard under the stairs. Pods that dried on the vine like the black beans were peeled out of pods and put in larger canning jar for cooking or planting next year. I’m told seeds can last for up to ten years.  A simple seedling nursery was devised a Harry-Potter-like ice room under my back stairs to give my seeds a start in March for planting in May.

Because our postage stamp urban yard has two Maple trees on the south side giving lots of shade, I joined a community garden ten years ago for a 4’x 8’ plot. All my schedule allowed was to put in the seeds and hope for rain. I watered if the sun shone too bright for too many days. I didn’t go to seed exchanges, harvest parties or recipe exchanges, but thought “Maybe, next year…” Now, I attend a Facebook seed exchange with my jars of yellow and red tomato, cherry tomato, cantaloupe, squash, kale, lettuce, basil, and chocolate mint seeds. We post on social media extra seedlings and seeds, message our address to those who are interested and leave envelopes on our front porch for pick up.  When I picked up marigold seeds I left a packet of tomato seeds. This year we helped Frederick Douglas high school students to build a raised bed in our Austin neighborhood community garden called Harambee. They planted seed from my seed library.

Environmental Impact

On a larger scale, Seed Banking is the most common way of conserving plants outside of their natural habitats as an ‘insurance policy’ against the extinction of rare, endemic and economically important plants of the world so that they can be utilized for the future restoration and farming. ‘Ex-situ’ conservation, conservation refers to plant conservation outside natural habitats, is preferred for a number of reasons: it allows for the preservation of high levels of genetic diversity at relatively low cost in minimal space and can be kept for comparatively long periods. Orthodox seeds will survive drying and freezing for seed bank conservation and specie preservation.  Currently, there’s a global knowledge gap around seed suitability for conservation in seed banks Global Strategy for Plant Conservation says 75% of the world’s threatened plant species will be conserved outside of their natural habitat by 2020. Conservation efforts currently focus on storing seeds in seed banks, but research reveals target is impossible as 36% of ‘critically endangered’ species aren’t bankable.  One solution is for Urgent investment and research into alternatives like cryopreservation needed to safeguard world’s most threatened species and British countryside icons oak and chestnut 

In paper published in November of 2018 in Nature Plants, researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, detailed for the first time the surprisingly large scale of threatened species that can’t be conserved in seed banks. The paper reveals that 36 per cent of ‘critically endangered’ species produce recalcitrant seeds, those that do not survive drying and freezing during ex-situ conservation and vice versa. This means they can’t tolerate the drying process and therefore cannot be frozen, the key process they need to go through to be safely stored in seed banks.  In the paper, Kew scientist Dr John Dickie, former Kew scientist Dr Sarah Wyse, and former Director of Science at Kew Prof. Kathy Willis, found that the “global tree species list also contain high proportions of species that are unbankable including 35% of ‘vulnerable’ species, 27% of ‘endangered’ species and 33% of all tree species.” Among these species are ecologically significant UK heritage trees such as oaks, horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts, as well as world food staples like avocado, cacao, and mango. This latest research reveals that the scale of plants unable to be conserved in seed banks is much greater for threatened species. The issue is particularly severe for tree species, especially those in tropical moist forests where a half of the canopy tree species might be unsuitable for banking. This research follows a paper published last year that estimated around 8% of the world’s plants produce recalcitrant seeds.

Seed banking, or drying doesn’t work for all seeds. This paper suggests there is a gap in knowing which of the world’s most rare, endemic and economically important plants are not suitable for conservation in seed banks. For the first time the extent of estimating how many plants, Wyse and Dickie developed a set of models to predict the likely seed storage behaviour of species. This analysis has highlighted that the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) target of conserving 75% of the world’s threatened plant species outside of their natural habitat by 2020 is practically impossible. 

Kew was urgently calling for cryopreservation to be immediately prioritized as a key conservation tool as it’s likely to provide us with the greatest gains in safeguarding ‘unbankable’ species in seed banks where seeds are dried and frozen at -20°C.  Alternative techniques, likely cryopreservation, are required to achieve the GSPC target. Cryopreservation is a form of preservation using liquid nitrogen which offers a potential long-term storage solution for recalcitrant seeds. whereas cryopreservation involves removing the embryo from the seed and then using liquid nitrogen to freeze it at a much colder temperature of -196°C. Cryopreservation also helps to extend the lifespans of orthodox seeds that otherwise have storage lives that are too short at -20°C. 

How to Get Involved: Learn More

Learn more about saving seeds at home

Learn more about America’s seed bank