Playing with Seeds

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So it’s time I talked a bit about what I actually do around here.

At the seed bank I’ve been given a research project examining the effects of different seed storage methods on long-term viability. The idea is to test different techniques, from the most resource intensive (sealed in vacuum packs with USAID-provided zeolite drying beads) to the most affordable (bamboo cylinders).

In the mix are a few intermediate technologies. One of my favorites is a vacuum-sealing method using mason jars and a bicycle pump. You turn the valves on the bicycle pump backwards and use it to draw a vacuum on the jar, as demonstrated by Lue, the seed bank production manager, below:

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There are three main factors in determining seed viability in storage: oxygen, moisture and temperature.

Vacuum sealing is important because oxygen speeds up seeds’ deterioration. In a previous trial (written up in ECHO Asia Note 14), ECHO found that vacuum sealing was even more effective than cold storage in preserving seed viability. So given the choice between a refrigerator and a method of vacuum storage, go for the vacuum.

We’ll also be experimenting with different techniques for keeping moisture low. We’ll be testing four different desiccant to see what their long term effect is on seed storage: silica beads (like the ones you find in doritos bags), zeolite beads, zeolite powder and parched rice. Zeolite is a mineral substance filled with microscopic pores that allow it to absorb moisture.

For the final factor, temperature, we’ll be storing all the treatments in an earth-bag house, a well-insulated structure made of local materials that will keep the seeds at a fairly consistent temperature. The control will be the seed bank’s refrigerated cold room.

earth bag house

(photo by fellow intern Jen Smeage)

The idea with all these experiments is to assemble a range of tested technologies for seed savers and small-scale seed banks to choose from. No single package of techniques will be appropriate for ever farmer and institution: some will have electricity, some will not, some will have access to commercial desiccants, some will not. So we want to have data on a whole continuum of seed storage methods which we can recommend to our network of agriculturalists.

It’s exciting stuff I think. ECHO’s hope is that this information will empower people in Southeast Asia to improve their seed storage, which will in turn enable them to better steward the edible biodiversity of their farms, hedge against some of the risk involved in all kinds of agriculture, and take food security into their own hands.

That’s the grand vision. But really, I’m just playing around with seeds.

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