Skip to content
Home » The seed banks that preserve the future of food in Brazil

The seed banks that preserve the future of food in Brazil

On an island in Lagoa dos Patos, far south of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, a lady kept a treasure in her refrigerator. 

Years ago, a drawer housed the gift she had received on her wedding: seeds of beans and pumpkin species.

“She said she was going to give me the seeds she got from her mother-in-law,” says Rosa Lía Barbieri. “They were seeds from a pumpkin they call gila pumpkin ( Cucurbita ficifolia),

 which is often used to make sweets”, says the researcher from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) who, at the time, was responsible for the germplasm bank of cucurbits.

Today, the pumpkin seeds donated by the farmer and by many other farmers throughout Brazil are preserved in even more specialized refrigerators: Embrapa’s germplasm banks. 

The partnership between researchers and farmers is precious to feed the collection of 164 banks spread across the five regions of the country, guarding genetic resources or reproductive material of plants relevant to food and agriculture.

Embrapa’s seed collection currently has around 120,000 samples of nearly 700 agricultural species, collected over the 49 years of the state-owned company’s existence. All of them are preserved at 20 degrees centigrade below zero.

“In short, we have three ways to conserve. We conserve the seeds at low temperatures, in tissue cultures [test tubes with slow growth], or the plants in the field”, says Rosa Lía about the diversity of germplasm banks.

Beans, rice, corn, and pumpkins produce seeds called orthodox, which can be stored at low humidity and temperature in cold chambers, lasting for centuries. 

Mangoes, peaches, and avocados, on the other hand, produce so-called recalcitrant seeds, which cannot withstand the cold and, in order to germinate, need to be used immediately after harvesting. 

In this case, the germplasm bank translates into a plantation in the field. In several places in the country, banks of native fruit trees are maintained, affectionately nicknamed the Noah’s Ark of Brazilian native fruits.

“The Brazil nut [also called Brazil nut] bank, for example, is located in Pará, at Embrapa Amazônia Oriental, and the plants are cultivated in the field. 

We can’t keep the Brazil nut seed for a long time, it loses its viability”, says Rosa Lía. “We have several germplasm banks of Amazonian fruits, such as cupuaçu and camu-camu, kept in the field”.

Over the past 50 years, agricultural productivity has been affected worldwide by climate change. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that extreme events such as droughts, heat waves, and floods will have an impact on agriculture in Brazil. 

In a scenario of high emissions, studies show that rice production could fall by 6%, wheat production by 21%, and corn production by 10%.

Non-Arctic Cashews 

“The issue of climate change, with the possible melting of the polar ice caps, was a factor taken into account. 

So much so that the World Seed Bank of Svalbard was built 130 meters above the sea”, says Rosa Lia, who also occupies a chair on the International Advisory Panel in the management of the Global Seed Bank of Svalbard, located in Longyearbyen, the most north of the planet, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

Over there, it’s not German shepherds or geese who take care of security. The Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has nearly a thousand polar bears, one for every three people. 

Inaugurated in February 2008 with the aim of conserving the biodiversity of the species of various crops in the world, the seed vault of humanity was excavated in solid mountain rock to withstand climate catastrophes and even a nuclear explosion. 

The steel door full of security systems opens the way to a tunnel 125 meters long that leads to three refrigerated chambers at minus 18 degrees centigrade, capable of storing 4.5 million seed samples.

The so-called “End of the World Seed Vault” already holds more than 1 million samples. Boxes sealed with the Brazilian flag and stuffed with rice, beans, pepper, onion, pumpkin, melon, watermelon, and corn seeds are part of its shelves. The next shipment of Brazilian seeds is approaching.

“The seeds are already in boxes, packaged, and we are in the documentation phase. Soon they will be sent by post”, says Rosa Lía. 

In the boxes are forage species for animal feed, varieties of native corn, passion fruit, and cashew. “The cashew nut behaves like an orthodox seed, so we are sending the first cashew seeds to Svalbard, no country has sent it there yet”.

Seeds stored in the Norwegian archipelago remain the property of those who deposited them and can only be removed or repatriated in the event of a catastrophe. 

The first withdrawal of seeds from the vault was made in 2016 by Syria, which had its local seed banks bombed.

genetic erosion

In the 1990s, indigenous people from the Krahô people arrived at Embrapa headquarters in Brasília, accompanied by a Funai indigenist, to recover old varieties of corn seeds that had disappeared from their villages.

A messianic movement in the 1950s, which encouraged the abandonment of traditional practices, associated with the incentive to replace the swiddens with the monoculture of rice, had led the Krahô to a state of poverty and hunger, with the loss of a large part of their agricultural variety, including traditional corn seeds.

The indigenous people asked Embrapa managers and researchers to open the cold rooms for the search. It was the first time that this happened by community demand. 

On that occasion, four varieties of maize, which had been collected in previous decades from the Xavante indigenous people, were recognized by the Krahô as examples of maize from their culture.

“We like to joke that the Krahô hit an arrow at the Embrapa Seed Bank because we were sensitized by them in this process”, says Terezinha Dias, a researcher at Embrapa who has been coordinating actions in ethnoscience, conservation of genetic resources, and promotion of food security with the Krahô people.

On that occasion, each chief was able to take six to eight seeds to his village. After a year, they returned to Brasília bringing bags of seeds that had been multiplied in their gardens. 

From the search for the Krahô, emerged the partnership of Embrapa with Kapéy, União das Aldeias Krahô, and the National Indian Foundation (Funai), generating a dialogue between traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge.

One of the experiences resulting from the partnership is the interaction of two seed conservation strategies: the ex-situ, which is conservation outside its environment, as in the case of Embrapa’s seed banks, and the on-farm, which is the conservation in the field, through constant planting, as in the Krahô swiddens.

The process of devaluing traditional or creole seeds is a legacy of the Green Revolution, a worldwide movement that, in the mid-20th century, began to encourage increased agricultural production. 

The movement’s bet was on mechanization, agrochemicals, and genetically improved seeds in research centers — often vulnerable and poorly adapted to climatic variations and the soil of each region. 

An additional consequence was the contamination of traditional crops by pollen from the growing transgenic crops.

“The monoculture model of the Green Revolution was expanded all over the world and the companies that started to work with agrochemicals started in the process of plant improvement”, says Terezinha. 

“Companies were already arriving, influencing governments in each country so that local seed laws would prohibit the use of traditional seeds”.

The result was the impoverishment of agrobiodiversity, with the extinction of many plant varieties and the loss of cultural knowledge about the management of species — a process technically known as genetic erosion.

One of the efforts that have been undertaken against this trend is the seed fairs, started in 1997 by the Krahô people after the rescue of traditional corn species. 

Since then, several fairs have been held to exchange seeds and knowledge, including the participation of other indigenous peoples. 

In 2020, the Krahô Traditional Seeds Fair was one of the 10 initiatives contemplated with the value of 50 thousand reais by the BNDES Award for Good Practices in Traditional Agricultural Systems.

“Here in our ex-situ seed bank, can we conserve everything? Of course. We have to have partnerships with the Indians, with the Quilombolas”, says Terezinha.

 “Indigenous territories are arks of conservation. If we have a seed bank here, can you imagine what is inside these communities? 

It’s one thing the seed that you collect and that just sits here, frozen. Another thing is the seed that is in the farmer’s hand, which he adapts.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *