While negotiations continue in international fora on how to halt the rapid genetic erosion in food plants, community seed banks are popping up all over Europe. Could they hold a key to the crop diversity challenge?
The number of community seed banks (CSBs) is rapidly increasing, in response to a growing demand for greater diversity in crop genetic resources among farmers, horticulturalists and home gardeners around the world. In the Global South, CSBs are seen as platforms for seed and food security, poverty alleviation and livelihoods. In the Global North, they help farmers, horticulturalists and home gardeners to diversify their production. In all parts of the world, CSBs are seen as repositories for plant properties that are needed to meet the effects of climate change and other environmental challenges, thus enabling future generations to meet their needs for food production.
Against this backdrop, the Fridtjof Nansen Institute and the Royal Norwegian Society for Development hosted a full-day seminar on 31 October, entitled ‘Community seed banks as springboard for food plant diversity: experiences and inspiration from European pioneers’.
As Norway has seen the establishment of two CSBs within the last couple of years, the seminar was aimed at exchanging experiences and deriving lessons from pioneers in other European countries.
Powerpoint presentations and videos from the seminar are available on this link.
Presenters and some of the panelists at the FNI seminar. From the top left: Morten Rasmussen, Muath Alsheikh, Anders Næss, Kari Clausen, Kostas Koutis, Béla Bartha, Jasper Kroon, Bell Batta Torheim, Henriette Vivestad, Catrina Fenton, Stehpen Barstow, Regine Andersen, Andrew McMillion and in front of him: Torunn Hernes Bjerkem. Photo: Jan D. Sørensen
Setting the stage
Bell Batta Torheim, Senior Advisor of the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food, delivered an opening address, underlining the role that CSBs have in fulfilling the UN Sustainable Development Goal on Zero Hunger. She also highlighted how CSBs can help fulfill the Norwegian action plan on sustainable food systems, and the role that Norway has committed itself to by hosting a safety backup for the seeds of the world in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
FNI Senior Research Fellow Regine Andersen gave an introduction on the state and trends of CSBs in Europe, based on research carried out under the EU Horizon 2020 project DIVERSIFOOD. More than 130 CSBs are operating in Europe as of today, with very different aims, scopes and activities. Conservation, seed multiplication and awareness-raising are but some of them. Currently two EU Horizon 2020 funded projects, DYNAVERSITY and Farmers’ Pride, seek to set up networks to coordinate and strengthen the activities and to attract more political and financial attention.
Related reading: Community seed banks – hubs for growing genetic diversity
FNI researcher Regine Andersen led the panel discussion. From the left: Anders Næss, Andrew McMillion, Muath Alsheikh, Torgun Marit Johnsen, Morten Rasmussen, Bell Batta Torheim. Photo: Jan D. Sørensen
New initiatives in Norway
Two newcomers to the list of European CSBs were presented. The Norwegian Community Seed Bank, launched just a year ago, is a cooperative founded by two farmers representing companies engaged in crop genetic diversity, and the Royal Norwegian Society for Development. A key function is to maintain a structured value chain for Norwegian and Nordic crop diversity from national gene banks through the multiplication of seed and by making it accessible for agricultural production, research and breeding.
In particular, we focus on varieties that we think might become more important for the market in the future,’ said Henriette Vivestad, Advisor at the Royal Norwegian Society for Development and Secretary of the Norwegian Community Seed Bank.
As of today it holds 60 varieties of cereals and 13 varieties of vegetables, of which seed has been multiplied and made available for sale and use. In addition, 60 vegetable varieties have been tested in 2019, with a view to select for inclusion in the Norwegian Community Seed Bank.
The other initiative, KVANN Norwegian Seed Savers, was presented by plant and ‘foodie enthusiast’ Stephen Barstow, KVANN’s Chairman of the Board. Barstow is the winner of the Plant Heritage Prize, the author of ‘Around the World in 80 Plants’ and holds the unofficial world record of having prepared a bowl of salad with 537 (!) edible plants.
KVANN works to conserve old and sometimes forgotten varieties of Norwegian vegetables, herbs, fruits, berries and ornamentals. The overall goal is to promote food diversity, and by that, the conservation of biodiversity.
Basically we are looking backwards for increased future food security in a rapidly changing world,’ said Barstow.
Foto: Stiftelsen Kore/Haakon J. Kristiansen