At a time when most stories about the environment are full of doom and gloom, it was wonderfully uplifting to listen to Paul Smith talk about the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, which is undoubtedly one of the world's greatest conservation projects. The initiative comprises a network of 120 plant science institutions in 54 countries and aims to provide an insurance policy against the extinction of plants in the wild by storing seeds of dryland plants for future use at the Wellcome Trust Millennium Building, situated in the grounds of WakehurstPlace, in West Sussex. Sir David Attenborough has described it as "perhaps the most significant conservation initiative ever undertaken"
The seed bank is a unique global asset - it is the largest of its kind in the world (dedicated to wild plant species) and contains the world's most diverse seed collections. Over the past 10 years more than 3.5 billion seeds from nearly 25,000 species have been collected and stored in seed banks both in their country of origin and in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank.
Paul joined the project as the co-ordinator for operations in Southern Africa, including Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Madagascar and was then chosen to head the entire initiative around the world in 2005. During the course of a fascinating hour-long talk, Paul detailed the project's challenges and successes in collecting seed from endangered exotic plants, as well as cereals which can be reintroduced into areas where they are vital to support communities.
Seeds can vary in size from particles of dust, like with orchids, to the size of a football - and Paul brought along the world's biggest seed, the Coco de Mer. Its scientific name, Lodoicea maldivica, originated before the 18th century when the Seychelles were uninhabited and, in centuries past, the coconuts that fell from the trees and ended up in the sea would be carried away eastwards by the prevailing sea currents. The nuts can only float though, after the germination process, when they are hollow.
All the collected seeds are all stored in large underground frozen vaults and, in April 2007, the propject banked its one billioneth seed, the Oxytenanthera abyssinica, a type of African bamboo and then - in October 2009 - the project achieved its first milestone of storing seed from ten per cent of the world's plant species when it added Musa itinerans, a wild banana, to its seed vault.
Over the next ten years, the Partnership will seek to secure 25 per cent of the world's flora in seed banks and to enable the use of that seed for human innovation in agriculture, horticulture, forestry and habitat restoration. Australia's participation is particularly significant because its flora constitutes 15 per cent of the world's total of species, with 22 per cent of them identified as under threat of extinction.
Paul pointed out that climate change will pose a major challenge in the coming decades and that the seed bank will provide a major resource in those areas which require new species of plants to provide food and clothing. In a major advance, other countries are now establishing their own banks, with several in Africa and other major institutions in China and Australia.
Several copies of The Last Great Plant Hunt, published by Kew, were also bought at the evening. The illustrated book encompasses some of the most beautiful and threatened habitats and plants on Earth from the deserts of Australia, through the alpine meadows of China, to the rainforests of Madagascar. Over 80 people attended the talk, with total proceeds of £484.
Paul Smith's wonderful, measured delivery detailed the remarkable success (although with great modesty) of this extraordinary project, which gives us all hope that many threatened species of plant are being saved from extinction as a result of the skill, dedication and tenacity of some of the world's greatest conservationists. It was a privilege to be in the company of the man who liases with scientists around the world in a bid to maintain the remarkable diversity of plants in the world - Eric Fermor, Banbury