Genetic Resources Preservation

What is Genetic Resources Preservation?

We are dependent on plants for everything from food to fiber and shelter. A vibrant, diverse plant world is necessary for our survival, but that world is increasingly threatened by climate change, habitat loss, and over-exploitation. The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership estimates that 60,000 to 100,000 plant species today are threatened with extinction.

With this alarming forecast, efforts to preserve plants have sprung up around the world. Genetic resources preservation of plants is divided into in situ and ex situ methods. In situ, or “in place,” preservation focuses on maintaining a plant within its native habitat, like protecting a native prairie flower within a prairie. Ex situ preservation is carried out by removing and preserving the plant outside its native habitat, like maintaining the seeds of a
prairie flower off-site.

Seedbanks, or places where seeds are stored, are a form of ex situ preservation. Heritage Farm is a seedbank for heirloom and open-pollinated fruit and vegetable varieties. The term “seedbank,” however, does not encompass some plant types—like potatoes—that are not regenerated from seed. “Plant genebank” broadly refers to any material from which a plant can be regenerated, whether seed, root, or bulb. Because we maintain more than just seed, Heritage Farm can then be described more fittingly as a plant genebank.

Our collections contain heirloom and open-pollinated (OP) varieties. Heirlooms are OPs with a long history of being cultivated and saved within a family or group. They have evolved by natural or human
selection over time. All heirlooms are open-pollinated by insects or wind, without human intervention. (The exception to this is hand-pollination, when a person simulates the effect of wind or insects for isolation purposes.) Though all heirlooms are OPs, not all OPs are heirlooms; that is, not all OPs are accompanied by a story of being maintained by one family or group.

Each OP generation produces offspring true to the generation before, a characteristic that distinguishes OPs from hybrids. (Hybrids do not
remain true in generations after the initial cross between two parent plants.) Heirlooms and OPs are usually well adapted to their region, making them especially valuable to farmers and gardeners. Each variety is genetically distinct, having evolved within its own ecological niche over thousands of years. Plant breeders use heirlooms and OPs to breed insect, disease, and drought tolerance into modern crops. When a plant variety disappears, its potential to aid us in the future is lost forever.

The importance of institutions like SSE is clear. Without deliberate efforts to save plants before they disappear, the global community may be vulnerable to calamity. In 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in Norway. Svalbard is a safety net for crop diversity, a place where seedbanks worldwide can send duplicate samples of their accessions for long-term storage. Svalbard does not handle the seed other than ensuring the Vault temperature remains optimal for seed longevity. In fact, no one other than the depositor (e.g. SSE) may even open the boxes in Svalbard, which is why it is referred to as “black-box storage.” All seeds remain the property of the depositor and cannot be accessed by other individuals or institutions.

SSE sent its first shipment to Svalbard in 2008, and has since submitted five others totaling over 2,000 varieties. Each variety included in these shipments is also maintained at Heritage Farm and listed annually for exchange in the Yearbook. We plan to continue shipments to Svalbard each year.

Plant genetic preservation is a movement everyone can get involved in. Saving your own seed, becoming a member of Seed Savers Exchange, and donating to our work are all ways you can contribute to this important movement. With your commitment and support, SSE can continue to safeguard the seeds of our garden heritage for generations to come.