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Seed banks can be either natural or anthropogenic in origin, and both are related to maintaining diversity of plant species in the face of human activity on the landscape. Natural seed banks, or soil seed banks, refer to the dormant seeds of various plant species that are present in the soil of a particular location. Anthropogenic seed banks, also called genebanks, are collections of dormant seeds, either of crops or natural plant species, that are being conserved ex situ as a means of preventing these species from becoming extinct.
Soil seed banks are greatly impacted by agricultural activity. Prior to disturbance, the dormant seeds present in the soil of a given location will reflect the species composition of the surrounding vegetation. Initial disturbance of this vegetation will release the seeds of the seed bank for growth, and the recovering vegetation will have a similar species composition of the original vegetation. Repeated disturbance to a plot will gradually exhaust the seed bank, however, and alter the species composition of recovering vegetation. It has been observed in the tropics that frequent burning of plots for agriculture exhausts the seed bank in this manner and species composition shifts toward a greater frequency of highly dispersible r-species, including non-native species, over slower growing, less dispersive native k-species.
Anthropogenic seed banks are ex situ conservation efforts designed to prevent the extinction of plant species or crop varieties. The dominance of agribusiness in global agriculture has caused fewer varieties of patented high-yielding varieties and genetically modified crops to dominate production (supported by increased irrigation and reliance on chemical fertilizers) at the expense of a wide variety of locally developed strains of that crop that are adapted to local soil and moisture conditions (sometimes referred to as heritage varieties). The genetic diversity of any given crop is thus at risk of being lost as a few varieties become dominant in the market. Seed banks have been implemented as a means of preserving the diversity of these crops.
Preservation of local varieties is also viewed as a defense against poverty, whereby households maintain access to seed stock that has been maintained culturally in the face of having to buy the dominant varieties from agribusiness. The Global Crop Diversity Trust is an organization that maintains seed banks throughout the world for the sake of preserving these local crop varieties, and has recently announced plans to build an immense facility on Spitsbergen Island in Norway to act as a back up facility for the world’s crops.
Seed banks have also been utilized to preserve endangered plant species. Although in situ conservation of habitat is regarded as the best means of preventing plant extinctions, conserving plant germplasm is viewed as a viable alternative when in situ conservation is not possible or in the face of the uncertainty from global change. Seed banks are capable of preserving a greater degree of genetic variation within a species than by the ex situ conservation of living individuals of that species. The Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew, for example, have initiated the Millennium Seed Bank Project and hope to protect around 24,000 plant species from extinction.
- Martin Kellman and Rosanne Tackaberry, Tropical Environments: The Functioning and Management of Tropical Ecosystems (Routledge, 1997);
- Lakshman Yapa, “What are Improved Seeds? An Epistemology of the Green Revolution,” Economic Geography (v. 69, July 1993).