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Seeds for tomorrow’s world

Volume 12 Number 1 - January 2015

Kay Evelina Lewis-Jones

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All the flowers of all the tomorrows are in the seeds of today.
Indian Proverb


There is something very powerful about a seed. Even before you start thinking about the burst of vibrant green life it holds within it, the seed presents us with a delectable object; an often beautiful and always intriguing, perishable, organic capsule.

The collection of seeds lies deep at the heart of a long historical relationship between humans and plants and the practice has changed both them and us beyond recognition. Now, as we find ourselves in a time of great uncertainty in which habitats and processes that we have taken for granted face imperiled futures, this historical intimacy offers hope for the future in a new way. Plant conservation is a response to this insecurity – to the vulnerability both of the species at risk and for the people contemplating what it might mean to live in a world without them. Conservation aims to keep our options open, avoid catastrophes and enable us to better manage our relationship with the environment.

“Collecting seeds seems to be more than just a pragmatic and efficient solution to an uncertain future. It builds on a long legacy between humans and plants. It is a promise.”

Imagination and values

Seeds are the point in a plant’s life when it can travel not only though its environment - by drifting, floating or catching a ride - but also through time; sleeping through long winters, or waiting until its patch in the sun opens up. Recently a cache of seeds from 32,000 years ago was used to successfully grow a silene plant (Kaufman, 2012). This biological ‘sleeping beauty’ capability has helped plants to cover the world, and means that for many plant species seeds make the perfect material for conservation (Li and Pritchard, 2009). Alongside this material suitability, however, there is another dimension that makes seeds ideal for conservation: their symbolic potency. Seeds represent an enticing pause that inspires us to reflect upon our place in history and the continuation of life in to the future. They capture the imagination of children and adults alike – and imagination is a powerful thing.

Engaging with the public’s imagination is at the heart of the work of many botanical gardens today and one of the best ways to engage people with environmental causes is through encouraging personal, emotional relationships with the natural world around them (Anderson, 1996). People respond in different ways to the perception of an imperiled future and for many the concept that the world is facing unknown changes is too big to fathom, or perhaps too daunting to act upon. Many people are simply unaware of the scale of the threat that plants face. And for those that are aware their knowledge and response to this knowledge varies hugely.

As an anthropologist, doing PhD research on the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP) with the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, one of the things that intrigues me most about seed conservation is the combination of collaborative passion and internal diversity. The Millennium Seed Bank opened in 2000 and works with partners across 80 countries, forming one of the world’s largest ex situ plant conservation networks, collecting and conserving the seeds of threatened wild plants. My research explores how the people who work in the partnership talk and think about the value of the seeds, and it has taken me from mountaintops to research laboratories. This last summer I spent 6 months with the seed conservation team in the Republic of Georgia – which has some of the highest levels of endemic plants in the temperate zone. The National Botanical Gardens of Georgia have been a partner of the MSBP for almost 10 years, during which time they have deposited the seeds of over 1000 species. Next year I will be building on the fieldwork and interviews I carried out there by extending my research to the work of several partners that contribute towards the Seeds of Success programme in the United States.

Diversity and resilience

What makes plants important and valued by people within conservation is something which can often go unquestioned, or be translated into simple words, such as ‘useful’, that may not do justice to the complexity of how people feel and why they do what they do (Sandbrook et al., 2011). Personal, cultural, professional and environmental contexts mean that for all of the shared values of plant conservation, there is also a wonderful and important array of diversity.

Just as with genetic diversity, cultural diversity and value plurality provide vital versatility and resilience, something that is especially important in times of uncertainty and rapid change (Keulartz, 2007; Brosius, 2006). Because of this, the social sciences can make important contributions to conservation (Milton, 1996; Orlove and Brush 1996). They can offer a space for reflection and enable better understanding of why things are done. They allow us to develop ways of being more efficient, more guided, engaged and more imaginative, and call upon us to share - and to question - our assumptions. Additionally, by studying why people are interested in plant conservation we are in a better position to extend the appeal to people beyond. 

For an anthropologist, conservation is particularly culturally interesting because it initiates intentional environmental interventions; ideally at a rate fast enough to combat the undesired and unintentional ones (Marris, 2011). This accelerated rate of change often happens within tight knit scientific and botanical communities and sometimes communication with the outside world can be sidelined or uninviting, especially when time is limited. On top of this, science calls for a professional objectivism which means that, at times, the kind of personal, ethical and social considerations that might usually go alongside imagining the future are relegated (Noss, 2007). Reflection on what our short and long terms goals are, however, is pertinent in something such as seed conservation. The seeds become a global conservation resource and how, when and why they leave the bank to fulfill their promise and become plants again becomes a human decision: something that, for some of these wild species, may be a matter of survival in the most final sense.

As we take upon ourselves the responsibility and role of stewards it demands us to reflect upon the values that guide us and what we hope to achieve. The global conservation of wild plant seeds provides an important and exciting opportunity to reimagine our relationship with the environment, to create more sustainable interactions and to make sure there is space for keeping plant species alive, for their own sake, for environmental integrity and in a way which extends beyond the concept of human resource.

Diversity of values is important for keeping the future open to different potentials. We need to make sure we not only pay attention to, but also celebrate the diverse ways of thinking about and communicating the value of plants and seeds (Brosius and Hitchner, 2010; Keulartz, 2007). If we convert seeds into a functional human resource in our imaginations and in the way we communicate the value of plants to one another then that is all they will become (Collar, 2003; Sullivan, 2009). We have to engage both those involved in conservation and the public in discussions surrounding the bigger picture of why we conserve seeds – in order to leave the future open, diverse and, ultimately, resilient.

Inspiring symbols

Although ex situ conservation may not offer as many immediate points of interaction with local communities and the public as in situ, discussion and engagement is still important. The public must be engaged, not only for their support, but because care for the environment should not be just left to the ‘experts’.  The public should not feel that environmental responsibility has been designated to others, but it should be something that is culturally present. Seeds and their symbolic diversity, their intriguing, tangible nature, are perfect conceptual tools for reflecting upon the future. The work of artists such as Rob Kesseler, Dornith Doherty and Sophie Munn, who have all worked with seed banks and responded in striking, haunting and beautiful ways to the seeds within them, are testament to the power of the seed to inspire.

My research is about what it means to save a seed; what it means for us as individuals involved in the process and what it means in a wider sense, to have gathered this timely and important natural bounty (Barlow, 2000). Whether you are involved in seed conservation already, or are thinking of beginning I would love to hear your thoughts on what kind of future you imagine awaits the seeds that you save.

In the spirit of celebrating this diversity and as part of my research I will be collaborating with the visual artist behind the ‘homage to the seed’, Sophie Munn, to generate a piece of work in response to your contributions and ideas.


Anderson, E. A. 1996. Ecologies of the Heart: Emotion, Belief and the Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barlow, C. 2000. The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms. New York: Basic Books.

Brosius, J. P. 2006. Common ground between anthropology and conservation biology. Conservation Biology 20 (3): 683-685.

Brosius, J. P. and Hitchner, S. L. 2010. Cultural diversity and conservation. International Social Science Journal 61 (199): 141-168.

Collar, N J. 2003. Beyond value: Biodiversity and the freedom of the mind. Global Ecology and Biogeography 12:265-269.

Kaufman, R. 2012. 32,000-Year-Old Plant Brought Back to Life—Oldest Yet. In. National Geographic, Feb 2012. Accessed 02/12/2014

Keulartz, J. 2007. Using metaphors in restoring nature. Nature and Culture 2 (1): 27-48.

Li, De Zhu and Pritchard, H. W. 2009. The science and economics of ex situ plant conservation. Trends in Plant Science 14 (11): 614-621.

Marris, E. 2011. Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. New York.

Milton, K. 1996. Environmentalism and Cultural Theory. Routledge.

Noss, R. F. 2007. Values are a good thing in conservation biology. Conservation Biology 21 (1): 18-20

Orlove, B. S. and Stephen B Brush. 1996. Anthropology and the conservation of biodiversity. Annual Review of Anthropology 25:329-352.

Sandbrook, C., Scales, I. R., Vira, B and. Adams, W. M. 2011. Value plurality among conservation professionals. Conserv Biol 25 (2): 285-94.

Sullivan, S. 2009. Green capitalism, and the cultural poverty of constructing nature as service provider. Radical Anthropology 3:18-26.