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Are Seeds Alive?

A concrete entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault juts out of a mountainside. It's dusk and snowy mountains loom in the distance.
Crop Trust
The entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.

Are seeds alive? What are they made of? Here in Vermont it's planting time, and we've been getting a lot of questions about seeds from kids around the world. In this episode we'll explore the importance of preserving seed diversity with Hannes Dempewolf of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Crop Trust manages a repository of seeds from around the world at the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, above the Arctic Circle.

Plus, ethnobotanist and Abenaki scholar Fred Wiseman shares a little bit about a project called Seeds of Renewal, which aims to find seeds traditionally grown by Abenaki people in our region and return them to cultivation.

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide | Transcript


The Svalbard Global Seed Vault contains an enormous wealth of seeds from around the world. Unlike other seed banks, the vault is designed not to be used unless there are no other options in other seed banks. Seed banks are places where seeds are stored for future use in case of a disaster or crop failure, and are sometimes given out to help establish new populations of heritage or rare plants and crops. Seed banks also promote genetic diversity by keeping many varieties of seeds from many different plant species.

Vials of seeds and a package of seeds. The package says Gene Bank"
Credit Crop Trust
Crop Trust

"The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has the international rice gene bank," Hannes Dempewolf told us. "And I believe there's more than 120,000 different varieties of rice conserved just in that seed bank. And that's still not a complete collection; there are still many, many varieties of rice around that are not conserved there and that we need to conserve in the future."

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault has been cut into a mountain in Norway, high above the Arctic Circle. The chambers in the vault are kept even colder than the ambient temperature, down to 18 degrees Celsius, preserving millions of tiny seeds in a dormant state until they're needed.

Dempewolf says the entrance to the vault juts out of the mountainside like some kind of alien structure. Once inside, you go down a long ramp, and at the bottom there are three chambers. There "you see these huge floor to ceiling shelves. And on these shelves, are all these different boxes that different countries and different seed banks have submitted. And many of those seed banks have also put their little flag on it, you know, and you can see these different boxes from all over the world, that contain that wealth of diversity that has been domesticated, attended to and selected by farmers over thousands of generations."

The vault is opened several times a year so countries and organizations can deposit seeds for storage. The Vault opened in 2008. So far, there has only been one withdrawal! In 2015, a seed bank devoted to researching crops that grow in dry areas could no longer do its work because of civil war in Syria. In order to establish a new seed bank in Morocco and Lebanon, it took some of its seeds out of the Global Seed Vault. But once the seed bank had re-established its crops, it made sure to replenish its supply in the vault. There are currently more than a million samples from all over the world in the vault.

Blue bins on a dolly head down the long ramp to the entrace to the seed vault.
Credit Crop Trust
Crop Trust

"Are seeds alive?" - Evie, 5, Hawaii

Yes, seeds are very much alive! At least the seeds that we use to grow food are alive. Seeds can die if they're not properly cared for, if they get too hot or cold or wet.  But under the right conditions, they're just dormant.

"It means they're sleeping basically," Dempewolf says.  "Seeds are dormant and they need to be activated to grow. They need light to grow, along with humidity and warmth, that's the conditions that allow seeds to grow."

"Different species of plants have very different kinds of seeds and different types of seeds also need very different conditions to grow. Some grow with very, very little humidity with very little wetness, and some need a lot. Some need to be submerged in you know under water for a while until they can grow. Some need to be frozen first before they can grow. Some seeds are made that they have to first be eaten by an animal and then pooped out again, so they can grow. Some grow with very, very little wetness, and some need to be submerged underwater for a while until they can grow. Some need to be frozen first before they can grow. Seeds are amazingly complex."

Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.
Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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