Repository logo

The history of seed banking and the hazards of backup.

Published version

Change log



Seeds and other plant materials in seed and gene bank collections are rarely considered adequately conserved today unless genetically identical duplicate samples have been created and safely stored elsewhere. This paper explores the history of seed banking to understand how, why and with what consequences copying collections came to occupy this central place. It highlights a shift in the guiding metaphor for long-term preservation of seed collections, from banking to backup. To understand the causes and consequences of this shift in metaphor, the paper traces the intertwined histories of the central long-term seed storage facility of the United States (opened in 1958) and the international seed conservation system into which that facility was integrated in the 1970s. This account reveals how changing conceptions of security, linked to changing economic, political and technological circumstances, transformed both the guiding metaphors and the practices of seed conservation in these institutions. Early instantiations of long-term cold storage facilities vested security in robust infrastructures and the capacities of professional staff; between the 1960s and 1990s, this configuration gave way to one in which security was situated in copies rather than capacities. This observation ultimately raises questions about the security promised and achieved through present-day infrastructures for crop genetic resources conservation.


Peer reviewed: True


backup, data, duplication, gene bank, seed bank, seeds

Journal Title

Soc Stud Sci

Conference Name

Journal ISSN


Volume Title



SAGE Publications
Wellcome Trust (109337/Z/15/Z)
Wellcome Trust (217968/Z/19/Z)