Food Security from the Doomsday Vault to your Backyard
Last Updated on Friday, 25 February 2011 04:46 Written by Grow Local Friday, 25 February 2011 01:31
It’s great to have insurance. But sadly, as many people in Queensland have recently discovered, its vital to read and understand the small print.
At Grow Local we were very pleased to read this story in the Sydney Morning Herald. It tells of an Australian farmer who is travelling to the ‘Svalbard Global Seed Vault’ on Spitsbergen island in the Arctic Circle. The vault is the world’s greatest seed store where quite literally thousands of important crops are stored in suspended animation as insurance against a major catastrophe.
If a continent’s food supply and the ability to replant is wiped out by a natural or man-made cataclysm this seed store, dubbed the ‘Doomsday Vault’ by the world media, is the place that will be able to restore seed to agriculture. Our Aussie farmer took along batches of rare chickpeas and field peas as insurance in case disaster struck the Victorian seed bank where they are currently stored.
The Global Seed Vault is an incredible resource with amazing technology and is regarded as good disaster insurance policy by many nations, including ours, that are struggling to come to grips with the huge changes required to prevent our food systems being damaged by climate change. But there’s small print in this insurance policy that needs to be understood.
While it’s perfectly possible to store viable seed from many of our most important crops for hundreds, or even thousands of years, there are some vital crops that simply cannot be stored this way - Pacific staples like plantain, yams and cassava spring to mind. The vault is not storing wild relatives of crop plants or nearly enough traditional local cultvars - the two greatest pools of genetic diversity available. There’s something else that can’t be put into suspended animation inside a mountain either - the culture of food production.
Why does Australia - of all places - have such a wonderful array of heritage food crops from all over the world? We have tomatoes from Russia, that are no longer found in Russia. We have lettuce that came over with the First Fleet that is no longer grown in England. In fact a Brisbane gardener is about to send ‘convict lettuce’ seed back to the UK to be grown in the new Buckingham Palace vegetable garden!
It’s the same reason that some European dances and musical traditions are found here but are long gone in their home countries. It’s all about culture. When these crops arrived they turned up with people who knew and understood them; people who saved seed and passed the culture of seed saving on to their descendants.
The culture of saving the best plants for seed and eating the rest is the finest way to adapt short lived crops to our changing climate. Instead of recombining genes, hit and miss, in a lab to make a new crop that may - or may not - work, the culture of seed saving selects the best genes for the job simply and slowly over time. And it does it in thousands of backyards and small farms, that’s how you keep the genetic diversity that will serve us well as our climate is ever more disrupted.
The next time you’re at the farmer’s market - or in the market for a new crop to plant - take the time to look at some of the odder, older things. What you need are 'open pollinated' or 'heritage' varietes to be able to save the seed and plant again next season. Sometimes the names are a dead giveaway, things like ‘mangelwurzel’ or ‘couve tronchuda' (pictured left) should get your attention.
There are several specialist heritage seed suppliers who can get you started with open pollinated varieties - a glance through our directory will get your started with Eden Seeds, Green Harvest and others. Or get in touch with your local seedsavers network group and find out what’s a good crop for your part of SEQ.
Lets hope that the insurance policy of the Spitsbergen Seed Vault never has to pay out. The culture of seedsaving has served us well for millennia and it’s still the only way we can ensure local food security everywhere.