You can enable subtitles (captions) in the video player
In the face of a changing climate and an ever-growing population, strengthening the world's future food security has never been more important. That's where seed banks come in. And this March, a brand-new, $17.2mn state-of-the-art facility opened in Palmira, in southwest Colombia. The goal of seed banks is to preserve as many plant species as possible. And the Palmira bank joins some 1,700 others around the world.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which opened in 2008, is the so-called mothership of seed banks. Housed under a mountain in the frosty Svalbard archipelago, it stores back-ups of more than one million plant samples. The facility in Palmira is more specialised. It holds 38,000 types of beans, 6,000 varieties of cassava, and 23,000 forages, plants eaten by livestock, and is the world's largest bank for these types of species.
Scientists have cross-bred and supercharged certain seeds in order to produce beans and cassava that are richer in zinc, iron, and vitamins than standard varieties. These improved varieties have been sent to Africa and elsewhere in Latin America, with benefits for public health. Vitamin A-rich cassava, for example, helps improve eyesight and can combat diarrhoea, which can be fatal to young children. Developing varieties of crops that are resistant to heat, drought, and flooding is also a priority.
Geneticists have started mapping the genomes of all 67,000 species stored in Palmira, and plan to use gene editing to cultivate plants that produce higher yields, are more nutritious, contain fewer toxins, and are more resilient to climate change. But seed bankers need to work fast. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 75 per cent of global crop diversity has been lost over the past century as farmers switch to genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.
At the same time, about 40 per cent of the world's plant species are at risk of extinction, and most of the world's food comes from just a handful of plant and animal species. Though there are more than 7,000 edible plant species on the planet, just three - maize, rice, and wheat - are the staple food of over half the world's population. But monocultures are vulnerable to pests and diseases, and can degrade soil and reduce biodiversity. Botanists say the best way to prevent disaster in farming is to preserve as much variation as possible, which is why seed banks are so important.