Banking botanicals: protecting plants and safeguarding seeds
16 Jul 2021
Following up on the wonderful photo story, ‘Botanical biodiversity banked’, published on our website last November in celebration of MSB’s 20th anniversary, we decided to ask Dr Chris Cockel what it’s really like to work for such a beloved national institution
I'm more of a project manager, but I enjoy the balance of science, horticulture, and project management, and the feeling of being able to make a difference. I also like working for a public-facing organisation...
With over 8.5 million items, Kew houses the largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world. Kew's Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) safeguards wild plant diversity. With over 350 in-house scientists, the publication of the organisation's Manifesto for Change states Kew’s scientific mission is to help to end the extinction crisis and contribute to creating a world where nature is protected, valued by all and managed sustainably.
What’s it like working as a Kew researcher?
A: I find it to be an honour and a privilege to work at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a ‘researcher’, I’m more of a project manager, but I enjoy the balance of science, horticulture, and project management, and the feeling of being able to make a difference. I also like working for a public-facing organisation, where there’s the opportunity to interact with visitors at events. I particularly enjoy interacting with colleagues overseas, in the knowledge that we’re all working towards similar goals in terms of plant conservation.
Q: Do you spend most of your time working outdoors or at a lab bench?
A: Neither. I spend most of my time in front of a computer. I do enjoy the rare opportunities I get to work in the lab or out in the field. I particularly enjoy fieldwork in the UK or overseas where I’m able to actually work with plants, rather than looking at budgets or species lists, or writing and reviewing papers.
Q: What is the MSB laboratory like?
A: I sometimes work in the labs at the Millennium Seed Bank. Not really processing seed material, but organising collections to send to crop breeding partners, or for UK Seed Hub1 projects. Sometimes I have projects that involve a little bit of horticulture, which I particularly enjoy. Going into the -20 degree freezers at the MSB and being surrounded by seeds from all over the world is always interesting. Our labs are modern and well-equipped, and the other members of staff are always willing to help.
Q: What is your main research focus?
A: I have been working with crop wild relatives2 - the cousins of our crop species - to research, protect and utilise these species in an effort to help adapt agriculture to climate change. However, most of the breeding research is carried out by external partners who are specialists. At the MSB we’re mostly involved in processing and storing seeds. I’ve recently switched back to the UK Native Seed Hub, which revolves around supplying high quality local provenance seed material for UK grassland conservation and restoration.
Q: How does your work feed into sustainability through biodiversity?
A: The official title of the project I’ve been working on for the last four years is the Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change Project. So, this feeds directly into providing wild plant seeds to crop breeders to help make our crops more resilient to pests, diseases and climate change, and ensuring global food security. The project is about safeguarding seed material so that it’s protected from multiple threats affecting all plant species. The UK project focuses on conserving and restoring UK grasslands, so is very relevant to biodiversity conservation here in the UK.
All life depends on plants. Every plant and animal is connected. Humanity would not exist without biodiversity, and it connects us to the world around us.
Q: How may your work feed into future farming practices?
A: The crop wild relative project will help secure farmer livelihoods in the future. It will make crops more resilient and take some of the uncertainty out of farming as conditions become more challenging for farmers in coming years.
Q: Are there any significant crossovers between sustainable biodiversity and genetic modification?
A: It’s increasingly being recognised that new techniques probably have a role to play. One issue with traditional crop breeding is that it takes a long time: 10-15 years in many cases. In terms of feeding a growing global population, we may not have the luxury of time on our hands to solve the global food security problem. As such, it’s necessary to use all the tools in the toolbox at a time of crisis.
Q: Why is biodiversity so very important?
A: All life depends on plants. Every plant and animal is connected. Humanity would not exist without biodiversity, and it connects us to the world around us.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has been devastating, it has demonstrated how interconnected we all are. This is also absolutely true in terms of our relationship to the natural world. We can all do our bit to save biodiversity. It’s just a pity that it takes a time of crisis to stimulate a change in behaviour and to bring the world together in a common cause. It helps to feel connected to the natural world when working for a globally recognised organisation such as Kew and to be based at a beautiful and inspiring facility in the Sussex countryside. We should do more to help other people feel more connected to the natural world, particularly people who live in urban areas where they’ve become completely detached from the plants and animals around them. We need to do all we can to tackle ‘plant blindness’.