The seed bank’s scientists gauge the total number of plant species at 300,000, which represents a middle figure in the widely varying, constantly changing, global estimate.
It doesn’t just take in seeds — it sends them out. Millennium Bank seeds are being used in Australia to figure out what plants can grow in salty reclaimed land, and in Pakistan and Egypt to find plants that can withstand drought and slow desert encroachment.
Saving the world’s seeds does not come cheap.
At the Millennium Seed Bank, it costs about $3,000 per species to ship in the seeds, meticulously clean them, X-ray them for insect damage, and freeze them for possible future use as medicine, a commercial product, or a reviver of a plant that has gone extinct.
It is a global effort: The bank has more than 120 different partners in some 50 countries where seeds are collected and stored. In many cases, seeds are kept both in their native countries and here as a backup.
Some countries, Brazil for instance, are unwilling to send precious seeds overseas, so they are kept in at least two seed banks inside the country, their standards monitored by Millennium Seed Bank experts.
The project, under the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, started in 2000 with 72 million pounds, then about $110 million, in funding from Britain’s national lottery and governmental, corporate, and individual sponsors.