It seems like every bloom and bud at the repository has a long history. There’s a reason for that. Some plant varieties can contend with drought, others with harsh winters; others are resistant to disease. This survival instinct is important to the plant propagators and scientists who use the genes and seeds stored here to interbreed species, improving upon the age-old efforts of domestic farmers around the globe. Thanks to crossbreeding, imports, and natural hybridization, as much as 90 percent of all cultivated crops in America contain genetic material that originated in other countries. Even the marionberry, lauded for being a native Oregonian, isn’t a wild plant at all, but a cross between varieties of blackberry and raspberry. Without seed collectors or seed savers, nearly all of the food we find in our grocery stores and farmers markets simply wouldn’t exist.
This stored genetic history plays a real role for the future. In the face of climate change, species that are able to adapt to a variety of climes could come in handy. Over the past two years, due in large part to increasing fuel costs and rising commodity prices, developing countries have faced massive food shortages. Today, thirty-two countries continue to contend with what the United Nations calls "food emergencies." Almost all of the seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan have been destroyed in the course of those countries’ ongoing wars. This represents a loss of thousands of native crops, some of which aren’t stored elsewhere.
"I think the living materials we distribute are more valuable than the gold stored in Fort Knox‚" says Peter Bretting of the USDA/ARS Office of National Programs, based in Beltsville, Maryland. "The materials in gene banks are integral to our ability to have a secure supply of the food we need as a nation to survive and thrive. This is our insurance policy for unforeseen threats."
NEAR the framed photographs and pictures of fruit that decorate the walls in Kim Hummer’s office, a looming bookshelf holds tomes that chronicle the historic roots of seed collection. She pulls down a dog-eared copy of Frank N. Meyer, Plant Hunter in Asia, which chronicles Meyer’s quest in the early 1900s for useful plants. On the first page is a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture." Responsible for retrieving over 2,500 varieties of agronomic crops and trees from Asia, including elm trees, Meyer endured Siberian winters, crossed moving glaciers, and encountered settlements where not that long ago men were offered as human sacrifices. He drowned under mysterious circumstances in China’s Yangtze River in 1918.
Hummer explains that since 1898, when the United States officially created a national plant exploration program, the government has funded nearly 650 collecting efforts that have crisscrossed the globe. During the lead up to the Cold War, in a sort of agricultural precursor to the nuclear arms race, the former Soviet Union rivaled our efforts, sending their own plant hunters throughout the world to create a competitive collection.
Until about a decade ago, fetching plants and seeds from foreign countries required little to no paperwork and no bilateral agreements, just an adventurous spirit, bankrolled by the American taxpayer. Last year, the USDA spent approximately $43 million on the gene banks. Operating costs for the Corvallis lab run more than $1.5 million. Standing beside a wall-length map of the world, Hummer points to all the countries she’s visited in thirty years of searching out wild and cultivated varieties of Fragaria and other rare fruit and nut species. She has hoofed up Japanese volcanoes and gotten lost in a Siberian forest filled with bears and fast-fading light. "It’s not all roses; it takes a bit of sweat‚" she says. "I definitely see myself as just a part of a long legacy of others who have gone collecting."