By Hannes Etter, Feb 15

Hannes Etter

Banking on Biodiversity


Your current account balance: 1,654,753,608 seeds


Did you know that at the moment around 60,000 to 100,000 species of plants are faced with the thread of extinction? These numbers add up to roughly one quarter of all the plant species, which are known so far. Plants play a big role regarding ecosystems and the services with which they provide us, such as the oxygen we breathe, food we eat and many other services such as pest control, soil conservation and disaster mitigation.1 With a decline in species numbers, especially plants, ecosystem functions are affected and can have negative impact on ecosystem services they provide to humans.

For example, the Acacia Acacia nilotica plant has a wealth of medical uses, i.e. as an antiseptic or treatment of stomach pain or diarrhea but this plant, like most living organisms, relies on an intact ecosystem to grow. It is therefore important to note that biodiverse ecosystems provide multiple, and usually higher, benefits for the people living within them, than less diverse.

 Another impressive example of the importance of healthy ecosystems can be found in the TEEB report: In Hiware Bizaar, a village in India, restoration of the original forest ecosystems surrounding the village arable land resulted in a rebirth for the village economy as agricultural productivity was increased dramatically. Agricultural production and also consumption should therefore focus more on biodiversity.2

Strength through variety

Part of ensuring a healthy ecosystem is maintaining its genetic diversity. Genetic diversity, both within and between species populations, is characteristic of all ecosystems and, through natural selection, results in evolution and adaption of species to particular habitats. When biodiversity declines; genetic diversity is lost and this can cause problems such as reducing an animal or plant’s stress tolerance or increasing its susceptibility to disease.3

Biodiversity – Vancouver Film School from Vancouver Film School on Vimeo.

Of particular concern is the erosion of genetic diversity in agricultural crops. Unfortunately our daily nutrition and, related to this, our agriculture, tends to focus on selected species and forgets to maintain a biodiverse species selection. Wheat, corn and rice alone account for more than 50% of the world’s food consumption; yet from the 7,000 plant species used world-wide in food and agriculture only 30 crops make up the world diet. These major staple foods do have natural and regionally diverse varieties but mass production focuses mainly on a few select species. However, maintaining the genetic diversity of these key crops (e.g. by using regionally adapted species) can decrease the susceptibility to pests and climate change as the regional varieties are often better adapted to the local conditions.4 

Maintaining diversity

Different initiatives or measurements seek to halt the global decline in biodiversity.5

 An important approach aiming to secure plant diversity is the storage of seed in so called seed banks. The principle implied here is to create a diverse stock of a large seed variety to rely on in case of future needs.

A TEEB case study in the Philippines shows how seed banks can contribute to increased food security and helps to counter impoverishment in rural areas. An initiative led by SEARICE (Southeast Asian Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment) helps farmers to conserve seeds and use the knowledge gained from these collections to improve seed breeding programmes. This helps them to lower breeding costs from US$ 6000/year/site to 1200/year/site.6

Seed banks can play an important role in ensuring the future of plant species and ecosystems. The largest project is hosted by Kew, an organization located in the UK cooperating with partner organizations and individuals all over the world.  Their aim is to build up a large database with different seeds from all over the world. In 1996 the Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) Appeal was launched in the UK and has now expanded into more than 50 countries worldwide. Today more than 27,651 species, which make up to 10% of the world’s wild plant species, have been saved with a total number of 1,654,753,608 seeds stored in cold storage houses at -20°C located in Wakehurst Place, Sussex in the United Kingdom.

The Millennium Seed Bank

With their giant seed collection Kew aims not only to secure the biodiversity of the world but to use knowledge about plant variety and species for further sustainable development research, including medical and environmental studies. Kew also hopes that more research will improve the methods of seed banking: Seed storage behavior, germination processes, requirements and dormancy mechanisms are still a complex field and need further exploration. In addition to that long term studies provide more knowledge about gene and molecules associated with dormancy or germination or aging.

In the year 2007 the MSB founded the Useful Plants Project (UPP), which aims to increase the capacity of local communities around the world to improve their livelihoods and create sustainable uses of resources. In Mexico, for example, the MSB has created a local cooperation between different stakeholders and the local community of San Rafael Coxcatlán to increase the local community’s plant conservation capabilities and to involve them in the ex-situ conservation programme of the arid regions of Mexico.7

It is important to mention that (as the Acacia example above shows) many species need an intact ecosystem in order to grow. Seeds can be stored, but this does not mean that these plants will be available to humanity in future in the needed quantity if the habitats and ecosystems these species are relying on are gone. That is why ecosystem conservation and restoration is a vital part of ensuring genetic diversity of plants in the future.

Ecosystem Restoration

Corresponding with the TEEB approach is Kew’s goal to restore damaged ecosystem and their ecosystem services. The collected seeds can be used to create a bigger supply of seeds to re-grow stocks of important plants for agriculture or save nearly extinct plants. In Kenya, arid districts in several provinces could be rehabilitated with the help of plants from seed banks. The same accounts for Burkina Faso, where farmers use the seeds to plant new plants, which help them to counter land degradation and extreme run-off on cultivated land.


Another focus of the MSB is the preparation for and mitigation of climate change. Research based on seeds stored in the collections provides scientists with new insights about plant distribution and possible consequences of temperature variations. Kew’s aim is to be able to use the data from the collected seeds to restore habitats threatened by climate change and to ensure that ecosystems remain functioning and meet the needs of people.

What can I do?

Kew and the MSB are saving hundreds of seeds every year. In case you want to support them you can adopt your own seed at their website. Options range from adopting a single seed or save an entire plant species from extinction. Read more about this topic or look at the Kew website for other ways to support the MSB.

  1. TEEB for Local and Regional Policy Makers, chapter 1, page 18, Box 1.4 []
  2. See TEEB for Business []
  3. TEEB Ecological and Economic Foundation []
  4. TEEB Ecological and economic Foundation Page 24 []
  5. Have a look at and browse through the reports to find measures like Payments for Ecosystem Services, Protected Areas or Conservation Banking []
  6. TEEB for Local and Regional Policy, Chapter 5, chapter 5, page 86, Box 5.2 []
  7. Further information can be found in a very interesting study of Lira et. al. 2009 []