Feeding the world – saving vital seeds

Stefan Schmitz, 64, works at a historical site – in the building in which German MPs worked in Bonn. Considering the size of his office and the view it offers of the Rhine, he surmises that it must have been used by someone with at least the rank of party leader. Although Schmitz is not a politician, his work is equally important. At the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), he leads the “One World – No Hunger” initiative – a 1.5 billion euro programme. As Executive Director of the Crop Trust, he has been raising funds for three years to preserve the biodiversity and diversity of agricultural crop seeds. One of the objectives is to guarantee the food supply of the world’s population.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust, or Crop Trust for short, has been in existence since 2004 and has received US$300 million to date. Interest earned on this capital is used to help fund the world’s largest seed banks. The Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen is its flagship project. It stores 1.1 million different seed samples, identical duplicates of crop seeds – 500 of each. “It’s kind of like life insurance for the world’s future food supply,” Schmitz says. “We want to be prepared for any potential disaster. We don’t know what awaits us. »

What kind of disaster could that be? Crop diseases and pests, natural disasters or wars like the Syrian civil war in 2011. A major gene bank near Aleppo, which also provided seeds to farmers in the dry regions of the Middle East, had sent packets of seeds from heirloom varieties of wheat, lentils, barley and beans at the Arctic Genetic Reserve. “It allowed the gene bank to continue its work despite the destruction it suffered,” says Schmitz.

The challenge facing the Crop Trust is enormous. There is a lack of funding, while climate change and the increasing demand for settlement areas generate time constraints. It is necessary to find varieties capable of withstanding drought, high temperatures and heavy rains. “Wild species tied to our agricultural crops are disappearing before we can save their seeds,” Schmitz says. And while he admits that US$300 million is a lot of money, three times that amount would be needed for the Crop Trust to fulfill its mandate.

Stefan Schmitz is not deterred by this and “diversity matters” remains his motto. Incidentally, his favorite crop is the tomato. He has already started growing it himself. When asked if the seeds from his plants at home will also be stored in the Spitsbergen vault, Schmitz laughs: “No, no. I am a geographer by training. I only grow the plants because I love Mediterranean cuisine and tomatoes are very good for you.

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