Nature and Biodiversity

Why would anyone die for a seed? New 'House on Fire' podcast looks at the race to save genetic diversity

Latest 'House on Fire' podcast tracks the race to save the world's genetic codes. Image: Joshua Lanzarini

James Bray
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  • Episode 2 of our new 'House on Fire' podcast takes an in-depth look at different approaches to salvaging genetic diversity, from early 20th-century seed collecting to sequencing genomes.
  • Other episodes focus on ocean plastic, deforestation, blue finance, direct air capture, alternative meats and more.
  • Subscribe to House on Fire on Apple, Spotify, Acast and more.
  • You can find more World Economic Forum podcasts here.

The second episode of House on Fire explores the extraordinary lengths scientists have gone to in order to find and preserve genetic diversity for future generations. In the teeth of the 'sixth mass extinction', how urgent is the task of locating and preserving the species that remain? And how might it be done?

The episode tells the history of early seed bank pioneer Nikolai Vavilov, a Soviet agronomist who first understood the critical role that genetic diversity could play in global agriculture and ending famine. He was imprisoned for his efforts, but not before he had built the world’s first major seed bank, in Leningrad. It was there, as the city came under siege from Nazi forces during the Second World War, that a team of scientists sacrificed their lives to protect the seeds, starving to death rather than eat them.


To bring the story up to date, we talk to the modern-day intellectual descendents of Vavilov, Chris Cockell from London’s Kew Gardens, and Hannes Dempewolf from the Crop Trust, two scientists who have worked on the Crop Wild Relatives Project. This initiative has seen volunteers travel the ends of the Earth to find and collect the wild relatives of the crops humanity depends on for sustenance, from the carrot to the aubergine, from wheat to rice. Braving tigers, snakes and armed militias, these volunteers have collected thousands of seeds so that the world might have access to the genetic diversity that will be needed to keep our crops viable as the climate changes.

Finally, we speak to Juan Carlos Castilla Rubio, who is attempting what must surely be the most ambitious attempt of all to save the world’s biodiversity: the Earth Bank of Codes. Simply put, this is an ultra high-tech seed bank for global biodiversity in its entirety - a safe-storage unit that will ultimately contain the genetic information for all the world’s known species. He says that this will be the foundation of a multi-trillion-dollar biosciences economy, whose profits will both fund and incentivize the conservation of the world’s last biodiversity hotspots.

Subscribe to House on Fire on Apple, Spotify, Acast and more.

Listen to our sister podcasts World Vs Virus, about the global pandemic, and The Great Reset, on the efforts to "build back better" here.

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