seedy truths: we are soiling that which sustains us

“It is a rare example of apocalypse planning ... how we humans have prepared in advance a response to global environmental change.”

It is also the safest facility on planet Earth, according to green campaigner Tony Juniper. He is referring to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located in the remote Arctic wilderness. Built into the mountains, it is highly secure, able to withstand what most of nature – and man-made instability – can throw at it.

Inside this vault more than 500,000 seed samples can be found. It is the single largest repository of crop diversity in the world, and growing. It is also our way of starting to safeguard against future extinction; not just for plants, but for the whole of mankind as well.

Writing in his latest book What has nature ever done for us? Juniper eloquently puts it thus: “The value of the vast collection of biological ideas held in crops and their wild relatives might well prove to be the most important resource we have in maintaining healthy human populations long into the future.”

This is primarily about recognising the importance of diversity, and letting it flourish rather than trying to constrain. Modern agriculture has been forged through industrialisation; we plough the fields, we selectively breed, we engineer, we control.

These higher crop yields we continually strive for come at a price – the erosion of genetic variation. It’s pretty stark; we have already lost 75% of this diversity from our global crop bank over the past century. A dwindling genetic pool means there is less resource that nature can draw from the soil as climate pressures intensify. The fallout, ironically, will be food insecurity.

What lies beneath us, the soil, is at the core of our economic prosperity. Yet save for a few lone conservationists, we often fail to recognise this. Biodiversity sustains us in ways most can’t imagine; our sense of how everything interconnects is perhaps at its dumbest at this point in time. People happily place value on technology and data, but not on what is most tangible and tactile.

For those who are minded to deconstruct and pull social fabric apart, there is continual realisation that we have built on foundations which are at best, vulnerable. We must stop depleting our eco-systems and start learning from them. Nature needs to be reclaimed as an economic asset – this is what Juniper fights for in his book.

Whether the approach is mitigation or adaptation, it is futile to attempt to tame what is beyond our control. Climate modelling often accounts for uncertainty, for different degrees of doubt. As a species, we would do well to embrace and nurture this uncertainty. It could end up buffering us against the worst – depending on which way the wind blows, and the seeds it carries, fall.

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