In 1845 a blight so pernicious hit the potato crop in Ireland, that the entirety of the harvest failed. For seven years straight. The population was so dependent on potatoes for sustenance that it prompted a famine. Millions of people died, and even today the population in Ireland has not recovered to the number it was at before.
I'm talking, of course, about the Irish Potato Famine. Though history tells us there are other complex political and economic reasons why so many people starved, it began with the failure of a staple crop. Fast forward to the 21st century, and the way we eat has completely changed. If the potato crop were to fail in Ireland today, other potatoes would be imported from elsewhere. The way we source our food is global, which, you might imagine, makes it more secure. Famine should increasingly become a thing of the past.
And yet when agriculture is globalised, the effects of a food disaster—particularly on a staple crop—would actually be less localised and more likely to be felt by us all. This is because after centuries of domestication, the mass-grown crops of modern times actually hail from a small gene pool. When you think that the whole human population relies on three crops (rice, wheat, and maize) for 50 percent of its plant-derived food, the impact of a failure in just one of these could be massive.
But, in the slightly unlikely location of the idyllic English gardens of Wakehurst Place, a stately home in West Sussex, is a repository of seeds that could secure the planet from starvation. Sponsored by the Government of Norway and managed by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and The Crop Trust is the Crop Wild Relatives Project, part of a scheme run by the Millennium Seed Bank called "Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change." Its aim is to collect seeds from wild varieties of humanity's most important staple crops.
"Our priority is food security," explains Oriole Wagstaff, technical officer at the project. "We're collecting genetic diversity for the global population to consume as we begin to see the impact of climate change on agriculture."
Though blights and diseases still have an impact on crops, the main challenge to food security both now and in the future is the effects of climate change—drought, flooding, fluctuating temperatures, raised levels of salt in the soil, and other changes to weather and heat levels.
"When I talk about crop wild relatives, I literally mean the wild versions of things—wild carrots, wild rice, wild bananas," Wagstaff explains. "Our domesticated crops, through the process of domestication, have lost some of their resistance. It's a very narrow genetic pool from thousands of years of domestication, whereas their wild relatives have adapted to much harsher environments and built up tolerances to things like drought, salt, and disease. They've got hardy genes our domesticated crops don't have. Our goal is to collect and conserve the domestic diversity of the wild relatives and make that available to people to breed into our crops to make them more resilient."
The Crop Wild Relatives researchers had to prioritise what they were going to collect first. They did this by assessing which seeds had already been gathered and stored, and then identifying the gaps. That led them to create the list of 29 core crops, the plants most relied upon by people to feed themselves. It's an eclectic mix. Some are obvious—wheat, oats, chickpeas, barley, sweet potato, different kinds of peas—and others less known, like the bambara groundnut and finger millet. There are just under 400 different varieties of plant within this list to be collected from 24 countries around the world.
So, for example, bananas. There are lots of different varieties of banana growing in the wild, and according to Wagstaff, some have already been identified as being resistant to some of the diseases that threaten the traditional Cavendish banana we eat now.
"But we collect all the types, not just the ones we know will be useful, because we don't know what other traits we might find that will be helpful for our crops in the future," says Wagstaff.
Crop Wild Relatives Project co-ordinator Chris Cockel elaborates: "In the 1950s, the Gros Michel variety of banana, which is what everyone ate after the War, was wiped out entirely by the Panama disease. That was one of the first warning signs, though as far back as the potato famine, the writing was on the wall. This project exists to guard against mass failures. The potato famine had a devastating effect on one country that led to starvation and mass migration. Who knows what would happen with the world's population today if a staple crop—like rice—were to fail? How many people rely on rice on a day-to-day basis? What we're doing isn't new, but the scale on which change is happening has meant we've had to go international."
Seeds are collected by partner organisations all over the world, who carefully package up samples and send them to the Crop Wild Relatives Project. Here they're cleaned and dried, and labelled up with a bar code to prevent them from being stolen. The drying process is the most important part. If the seeds are frozen too wet, their cellular structure will change when they are reheated and they'll be less likely to germinate.
Once the seeds are prepared, they're put into basic kitchen clip jars—apparently the most effective way of keeping unwanted moisture out—and then go into storage in massive purpose-built underground freezers, kept at a constant temperature of minus 21 degrees Celsius.
"The first seed bank was in a fridge in the mansion in the 1970s, so we've come a long way from that," says Cockel. "But we see ourselves as a library, not a museum."
The seeds are not being stored out of a need to collect and categorise, but as a safeguard for the future. Cockel gives the example of a seed bank in Aleppo, Syria, one of the most important in the Middle East, which had to send its collection to other seed banks across the world when the war began. Although the conflict isn't over, saved seeds from the region have been withdrawn from a seed bank in Svalbard to be replanted in areas where the seeds would have otherwise been lost to war.
Though it seems quite sterile and scientifically rarified, the truth is that the work of the Crop Wild Relatives Project could prove to be life-saving for millions. Where the priority for agricultural conglomerates now might be to breed for flavour, ease of packing, or some other commercial purpose, this project is making sure the genetic diversity is preserved to breed against the effects of climate change.
"You can't make a plant look good or easy to package if it no longer exists," says Wagstaff with aplomb. "We're thinking about the people most likely to be affected by climate change—the rural poor and the marginalised. Flavour, size, shape don't matter to us, it's about making sure everything stays available so people can keep being able to eat."
The seeds are beautiful—incredible shapes and colours and sizes—and all the more marvellous because in these jars is our future. It's the hope that no one will ever need to starve from crop failure again, bottled at the bottom of an English garden.