Ukraine’s national seed bank was crippled by Russian bombing in May, potentially putting future food production at risk.
On May 16, a YouTube video emerged from the private account of Serhiy Avramenko, lead researcher at the Yuriev Plant Production Institute in Kharkiv. It seemed to show the remaining rubble of the shelled building.
Reports soon followed, providing contradictory accounts of the destruction and unknown status of the national seed collection. UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources Technical Officer Elly Barrett confirms that the national seed collection was not, in fact, destroyed.
Barrett is part of an international initiative working with the Yuriev Institute and the FAO Ukraine office to support and protect the institute, its staff and its seed collection.
Although intact, national seed collection remains at high risk as the war continues because it has not been fully “supported” according to Barrett. In other words, a complete copy does not exist.
What are seed gene banks?
Seed banks are institutions that conserve and study crop diversity, allowing researchers to develop varieties resistant to pests, diseases and other adversities. They are a key player in the evolution of agriculture as we adapt to the known – and prepare for the unknown future – impacts of climate change.
According to FAO Agricultural Officer Bonnie Furman, it is good practice to have a copy of the complete seed collection stored elsewhere, such as with an international partner, in case something happens to the main seed collection. That way, copies can still be accessed for future research and to support agriculture.
Farmers have the ability to repatriate the crops of these seeds. This proved possible for Syria when his institute was destroyed during the 2016 conflict. Copies of the seeds were stored in the Global Seed Vault of Svalbard in Norway, later accessed by these scientists to re-establish the seed collection, and new copies were sent back to the Nordic vault for safekeeping.
The same process might have been possible for the ukrainian collection if it had been fully copied. But, says Barrett, “Ukraine has a unique collection, and if it’s lost, it’s lost forever.”
Europe’s ‘granary’ is threatened by climate change and war
Known as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’, Ukraine plays a critical role in many of the world’s staple food markets.
It has accounted for 3% of global wheat production on average over the last five seasons and is the fifth largest wheat exporter with 10%, according to a recent ‘Agricultural Outlook’ report the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and FAO.
The country, exceptionally favorable for its black, organic-rich soil called ‘chernozem’, also produces 20% of the world’s barley and is the largest producer of sunflower seeds.
But a previous FAO report 2014 found that Ukraine’s food security was already vulnerable to climate change. Rising temperatures and increased seasonal variability are putting new uncertainties in the country.
Today, the conflict has internally displaced around 8 million people. And despite the resilience of Ukrainian farmers, food security concerns are rising, according to the outlook report covering 2022-2031.
A revised FAO rapid response plan highlighted the country’s worsening food security as farmers have “limited availability of critical agricultural inputs, including seeds, fertilizers, pesticidesequipment, fuel and cattle supplies.” Labor shortages have also increased as men are recruited and women are overworked.
Is Ukraine still supplying grain to the world?
Externally, exports remain largely stagnant. But on August 1, the first Ukrainian grain ship left port since the Russian invasion began in January.
The main ports that previously channeled 90% of Ukraine’s exports are estimated to only reach 20%. With rising price inflation, global malnutrition could increase by 1% in 2022 to 2023 – the equivalent of between 8 and 13 million people.
This estimated projection is based only on recorded figures for 2021 and 2022, and does not take into account the possibility of a protracted war.
These obstacles are compounded by the vulnerability of the Yuriev Institute’s national seed collection. Gene seed banks and their collections act as agricultural and biodiversity safeguards for our future when crops are destroyed, whether by extreme weather or bombing.
Without gene seed banks, says Furman, “you miss out on the potential to feed humanity in the future.”
Why is cultural diversity so important?
Crop diversity and adaptation are necessary to develop solutions to the complex challenges posed by climate change to our future food production. When you lose a seed bank and its collection, you lose the potential to do so, warns Furman.
“There’s a whole range of issues that come with climate change,” she explains. “You have to be able to fight them, and the only way to do that is to diversify. And the only way to diversify is to have diversity available.”
Genetic seed banks are a way to preserve and increase seed diversity. They are considered ‘ex situ’ or off-site conservation for specific seeds called ‘orthodox’ species, but other seeds can only be conserved through ‘in situ’ or on-site methods such as community seed banks or field collection.
In situ conservation allows seeds to evolve together in the environment and with the pace of climate change in real time. “It preserves knowledge with the seeds,” says Karine Peschard, research associate at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
Maywa Montenegro, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, suggests that in situ methods also have the benefit of recirculating local seeds directly to smallholder farmers, contributing to agrobiodiversity and local knowledge.
The ex situ and in situ methods complement each other, says Peschard. They increase seed and agriculture diversity, providing solutions at different levels to address the unique problems exacerbated by climate change and conflict.
People can get involved in increasing seed diversity at the local level by supporting their farmers’ markets, growing a diverse garden and purchasing diverse seeds through seed protection networks, barter or barter.
“Diversity is the key to our future with climate change. We need more diversity and more resilience,” adds Peschard.