Today’s seed industry has developed into a high-value-added sector. Some seeds are literally worth more than their weight in gold.
Advanced countries are striving to secure more high-quality seeds for crops and other plants.
The competition among countries to secure plant genetic resources heated up after the convention of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants took effect last year.
At the same time, the need to collect seeds to use them in the plant industry and for technologies for their systematic preservation and management is rising.
The importance of the genetic resources of wild plants, as the basic source of life science, is mounting. This is because they are being used in the development of new varieties, exploration of new materials, and study of genomes.
Apparently mindful of genetic resources’ economic value, many countries regard them as state assets, and are making huge investments in securing and managing them.
But Korea is not yet fully prepared for this.
Some countries recognized early the importance of seeds and have been striving to secure them in various areas.
In particular, Britain established the Millennium Seed Bank under the Royal Botanical Garden in 2000. The seed bank is currently conducting various research projects through cooperation with more than 100 institutes and organizations in about 50 countries.
The Millennium Seed Bank stores about 27,651 species and about 1.65 billion seeds (about 10 percent of the world’s seeds). The seed bank is trying to secure up to 25 percent of global plant seeds by 2020.
In 2008, Norway built the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the island of Spitsbergen near the town of Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole, to provide seeds to last survivors in doomsday.
The seed vault was built in the island of eternal frozen earth permafrost and its facility is about 130 meters above sea level and has been tunneled 120 meters into the mountain. Each of the three underground chambers is about 1,200 cubic meters (20 meters deep, 10 meters wide and 6 meters high).
The storage facility keeps about 3,200 varieties and about 230,000 seeds.
The Norwegian agriculture ministry provided the site and construction cost while Svalbard University remotely controls its management.
One of the vault’s major functions is to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds in an underground chamber. The seeds are duplicate samples, or “spare” copies, of seeds held in gene banks worldwide.
|An artist’s rendering of the seed vault in the National Baekdu-Daegan Arboretum (KFS)|
|An artist’s rendering of the National Baekdu-Daegan Arboretum (KFS)|
Korea’s state-run Rural Development Administration has deposited about 13,000 domestic plant seeds in the doomsday vault in accordance with the country’s agreement with FAO.
Now it is time for Korea to make a systematic investment in preserving, managing and using seeds, and to establish a national-level system to store and control wild plant seeds.
Such an investment and system would make it possible for the nation to promote the collection of plant seed resources at home and abroad through its own seed vault, and for researchers to continuously use the secured seeds for the life science industry.
The Korea Forest Service, which recognized the importance of seeds, is building an underground seed vault inside the National Baekdu-Daegan Arboretum under construction in Bonghwa, North Gyeongsang Province, for completion in 2015. Baekdu-Daegan is the country’s longest mountain range, and runs along the entire Korean Peninsula.
The seed vault under construction 40 meters underground is designed to store up to 1 million seeds and to withstand disasters like typhoons and earthquakes.
|A cross-sectional image of the seed vault (KFS)|
The government plans to develop the seed vault into an Asian hub by collecting and keeping not only domestic seeds but also those from the region.
Recently, the government is seeking to turn some state-run research institutes into corporations to make a profit. It aims to enhance their operational efficiency and strengthen their global competitiveness.
But as shown some cases overseas, some long-term projects, including those on research and study of genetic resources, large-scale surveys of plant resources and establishment of international networks, should be led by a government organization.
Particularly, it is difficult for nongovernmental organizations to promote the introduction of foreign seeds into our country because it needs a government-level agreement with the donor countries.
So it is necessary for Korea to use government funds because it is not a project for short-term profit but one to establish a base to preserve seeds safely for future use.
By Hwang Hyo-tae
The writer is director of the National Baekdu-Daegan Arboretum Development Team at the Korea Forest Service. The opinions reflected in the article are his own. ― Ed.