I’ve long been fascinated by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Norwegian deep freeze is where thousands of the world’s food crop seeds lie slumbering, preserved as a testament to Earth’s genetic diversity — with a sad eye to the day when they are extinct outside of the seed vault’s concrete walls.
But for all its officialness, the Svalbard Vault shouldn’t let us get complacent about the state of seeds worldwide. It takes a thousand daily tiny acts of conservation to preserve our planet. Ideally, we should never get to the point of needing to access the Vault’s contents — which is why I am inspired by this profile of Will Bonsall, author, farmer, and virtual one-man seed-vault. Bonsall is doing his bit to preserve food diversity in his own corner of the world. His Maine homestead features a seed collection of countless varieties of peas, beets, tomatoes, corn, and other crops, organized in envelopes and waiting for the day they can see the sun again.
“Whereas other seed savers might concentrate on specific crops, on what grows best in their regions, or on species that exhibit certain characteristics, Bonsall seems to value rarity and diversity for their own sakes. Among his alphabetized envelopes are plenty of heirloom seeds that no one is particularly clambering to plant, but Bonsall compares his collection to a library — he doesn’t get rid of something just because no one has checked it out in a while. Here and there, he suspects he has some varieties that only a handful people worldwide still possess — a rare beet, for instance, once grown by gardeners in a region of Bosnia decimated by war and genocide in the ’90s.
Unlike the Doomsday Vault and other institutional collections, Bonsall’s Scatterseed Project aims to actually scatter his seeds. In the old days, he did this by publishing lists of his varieties in directories printed by groups like the Seed Savers Exchange. These days, he fills requests that come through various online platforms. He has long been a presence at ag fairs and grange-hall meetings, where other growers can pick his brain and sometimes rifle through his inventory. Since he launched the Scatterseed Project in 1981, Bonsall estimates he’s shared seeds with tens of thousands of people.”
In this space, we’ve looked at seed genetic diversity as a time machine to the past, but reading about Bonsall and his quest is the first time I’ve thought of it as a time machine to the future. Bonsall and other seed protectors are ensuring a human food horizon that can handle blight, fungal infection, and corporate interests through our planet’s greatest strength — individuality. It’s up to us and our individuality to ensure their efforts stick!