May 6, 2013

The Sixth Great Extinction: Seed Bank

Maggie Rulli looks at seed banks as a solution to the sixth great extinction.

Maggie: Everything we eat and everything they eat comes directly, or indirectly, from plants. But right now, more than 20% of the world’s plant species are being threatened by things like climate change and overdevelopment.

Ashley Glover: We’re losing so much genetic diversity, and it’s things that you can’t get back.

Maggie: Could saving these plants mean banking on their seeds?

Kendra Beal: We are going to go into our horticulture class’s seed closet where we store our 850 varieties of seeds.

Maggie: Kendra Beal is part of Mr. Lash’s horticulture class at Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro, Maine. They save and grow seeds of different ancient varieties, also known as heirloom seeds.

Why seed saving is important? Why do you guys have all of these containers?

Kendra: Well, we keep most of these containers because the biodiversity of seeds is really important.

Maggie: What is biodiversity?

Kendra: If you think of biodiversity like how you think of people, it’s like many different races and types of people, but it’s with seeds.

Maggie: But how many different types of plant species are really out there? Well, just look at the common tomato.

Kendra: You have your red tomatoes, yellow, orange, purple and black, which is really surprising there’s black tomatoes.

Maggie: There is more than 7,000 varieties of tomatoes alone! That biodiversity creates a healthier ecosystem, which is 150% more productive than an environment with just a few species. It has been proven in both science, and history. Take the Irish Potato Famine in the mid 1800s. A lack of potato crop biodiversity meant just one virus was able to wipe out the entire potato crop. That unhealthy ecosystem resulted in the deaths of more than 25% of Ireland’s population.

In addition to food, plant biodiversity also provides oxygen, water purification and a variety of raw materials for things like construction, clothing and medicine. In fact, plants like the Madagascar rosy periwinkle have helped in the development of nearly 50% of the prescription drugs now used in the United States. So, with every plant species that disappears, a future cure could be lost as well.

In total, nearly 400,000 species of plants are known to exist today. And seed banks are used worldwide to protect those plant varieties. This frozen, underground seed bank in Norway can store more than 2 billion seeds. It is kind of like an international insurance policy for the future of plant biodiversity.

Lucky for Kendra and her classmates, they get to enjoy some of their hard work right now. The students take a few of those seeds they saved…

Tennis ball lettuce?

Ashley: Apparently!

Maggie: …And plant them during class.

So what you are growing in here, what do you do with it next?

Ashley: Well, we have lettuce growing here right now. That goes to our cafeteria.

Maggie: And heirloom varieties often taste better – just another reason to save their seeds.

This corn tastes different than corn that you might often find in a grocery store.

Ashley: It tastes a lot better. When you grow your own food, you know where it came from. There’s no added stuff, there’s no pesticides. And I feel so much better eating my own food.

Maggie: It is not bad!

And as we learned firsthand, working to conserve plant biodiversity can have some pretty tasty rewards.

Watermelon seeds!

Maggie Rulli, Channel One News.


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