Precarious doomsday solution for New Zealand’s native plants

As climate change crumbles coasts, lengthens droughts and increases extreme weather events, New Zealand’s seed bank for threatened indigenous plants lacks on-going funding. (Photo: Esaias Tan)

As climate change crumbles coasts, lengthens droughts and increases extreme weather events, New Zealand’s seed bank for threatened indigenous plants lacks on-going funding. (Photo: Esaias Tan)

The Mail & Guardian is publishing this article as part of a network of over 300 publications that are sharing journalism on the climate crisis. 

This article is from New Zealand.


As climate change crumbles coasts, lengthens droughts and increases extreme weather events, New Zealand’s seed bank for threatened indigenous plants lacks ongoing funding.

At the strand line, the point on a beach just above where waves strand bits of driftwood, seaweed and dead jellyfish, lives a plant.

It’s not much to look at. Small, green and spreading, its most memorable feature is its appearance of being dusted with sugar crystals.

Once Holloway’s crystalwort was found from Northland to Wellington. Now it’s only found on one beach.
No one knows quite why it’s been disappearing. Climate change is adding a new worry. One extreme weather event could wipe it from its last home.

Unitec associate professor Peter de Lange said the remaining population is extremely vulnerable. The last time he saw it, only 50 plants were left.

“If we get a very slight sea level rise, or if we get an increase of storms which we are seeing at the moment in summer, it could go extinct in the blink of an eye.”

There’s a lifeline though. Seeds from the crystalwort are tucked away in a seed bank freezer. It’s more than can be said for most of New Zealand’s threatened or at risk plant species. Only 200 of New Zealand’s 2600 species are banked.

There’s a worry in a race between securing on-going funding for a seed bank and climate change, already threatened plant species might lose.

With 80% of New Zealand’s native plants found nowhere else in the world, once gone, they’ll be lost forever.

New Zealand has 2 600 native plant species. Around 1 400 species are threatened with, or at risk of extinction.

Some are losing their habitat to houses or farms. Others end up in the stomachs of hungry introduced mammals or are pushed out of their homes by invasive weeds.

Climate change is adding a new wrinkle to an already dire situation for threatened species.

It’s predicted a temperature rise of 3°C could wipe out up to half of New Zealand’s indigenous species by 2100.

For alpine species, which represent one third of New Zealand plants, the situation is particularly pressing. Once alpine habitat is lost there’s nowhere for them to go.

Unitec’s de Lange helped write the book on New Zealand’s threatened plant species. It’s a depressingly thick 471 pages, weighing nearly 2kg. Published in 2010, it’s already out-of-date. An updated version would likely weigh more.

Often what wipes a species out he says is something unexpected.

“When the pressure is relentless, then the populations get fragmented. When they get fragmented other things might happen … the last gasp might be an unexpected cold spell, an unexpected warm spell, a sudden storm, or fire, or volcanic activity. That’s where global warming is a risk.”

While it’s hard to say definitively what the exact effects of climate change on plants will be, it’s expected sea water washing inland during storm surges, coastal erosion, prolonged breeding seasons for rabbits, droughts, fire and conditions which favour weeds over natives are likely.

Diseases such as myrtle rust which thrive in warm, wet conditions are another threat. There are only 13 Bartlett’s rata trees growing in the wild. In 2017 it was decided a back-up population would be grown in Dunedin, where it’s hoped a colder climate will protect the trees.

“The idea was myrtle rust won’t come here. Well if we have a slight shift in temperature, it will.”

For de Lange climate change is a risk layered on top of multiple existing risks faced by New Zealand’s plants.

“This is where seed banking comes in. The world view is that we’re in, they call it the Anthropocene, the biggest extinction since the Mesozoic and this is entirely human induced. I don’t think anyone is going to argue about that.


The entrance to the international gene bank Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) is pictured outside Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway. (Reuters/Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix)

“There’s been a huge focus in this country on animals, and plants have been sort of like, ‘Well, someone will do them’.”

New Zealand’s extinction plant insurance plan relies on goodwill and sporadic hand-to-mouth injections of cash. So little work has been done, there’s not even certainty over which plants can be seed banked easily and which will require cryopreservation.

There’s a chance unexpected climate change caused events could catch New Zealand’s seed banking with its pants down.

It’s a … shelf

When it comes to plant conservation there are two strategies. One is saving plants where they naturally occur. The department of conservation currently has threatened species recovery plans for 12 of the almost 1 400 plant species at risk of extinction.

The other strategy is attempting to save them in a different place — like translocating them to an island without possum, deer, goats and rabbits.

If there are no suitable different places to grow plants, there is a last gasp option.

Plants produce seeds — time capsules — which can wait many years to germinate. In the right, chilled conditions, some seeds can last for decades or longer. It’s plausible species can hover in stasis in seed banks until safe homes could be found, or snow returns to mountain slopes.

New Zealand does have an indigenous seed bank, but it’s a far cry from the doomsday Svalbard Global Seed Vault nestled in Arctic Circle permafrost, Kew’s solar-powered, flood, bomb and radiation proof Millennium Seed Bank, or even Australian seed banks.

The New Zealand Indigenous Flora Seed Bank might sound grand but it’s a borrowed shelf in a freezer in AgResearch’s Margot Forde Germplasm Centre, an agricultural seed bank in Palmerston North.

Here New Zealand’s few banked native species are surrounded by their sustainably-funded grassland counterparts.

The native seed bank receives no ongoing government funding. It is not a legal entity – rather a memorandum of understanding between five organisations including Massey University, the department of conservation, AgResearch, Landcare Research and the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network.

So far it’s banked 200 New Zealand native plant species.

When it was started in 2013 by passionate conservationists there was optimism on-going support would materialise, however, so far the ‘build it and the funding will come’ approach hasn’t borne on-going fruit.

Talk to conservationists and while all agree it was formed with the best of intentions, there are some who maintain a shelf without proper funding isn’t a secure national seed bank.

There’s a chance forming it before proper funding may have perversely created a false sense of security that native seed banking is under control.

Massey University’s Craig McGill is the seed bank’s project lead.

He estimates there are around 3 000 described and undescribed native species. Seed banking generally requires 10 000 seeds per species banked. These should be from a range of plants and locations to ensure enough genetic variability to re-establish a healthy population.

He said the seed bank initially received funds from MWH, a private company. Massey University put some funds towards it and the New Zealand Lotteries Grant Board contributed three years of funding.

As the lotteries funds were running out in 2017, myrtle rust arrived in New Zealand. It brought with it a welcome cash injection for the seed bank and shifted efforts. Banking Myrtaceae is now the primary focus of the bank.

“Myrtle rust really elevated seed banking in terms of its profile within New Zealand.”

A decision was made to collect and store all seeds from New Zealand’s Myrtaceae species. Ministry of primary industry funding was received as well funding from the department of conservation, who lead the project.

The effort has seen some seeds from 30 of the 37 native Myrtaceae species collected and banked.

While the funding is welcome, it’s not secure, ongoing cash which would allow the seed bank to collect and store more of New Zealand’s 1 400 or so threatened plant species.

“We’re facing myrtle rust at the moment, but we don’t know in the future what species will be under threat in the future from climate change, disease, incursions or other natural events.”

Waiting until a disease is present complicates collecting. Seeds must be free of any trace of disease, and collecting efforts need to take extra care not to spread disease.

When asked what would happen if funds run out McGill pauses: “The banking would stall basically.”

He thinks the currently banked seeds would most likely remain in AgResearch’s deep-freeze storage but collecting would cease and the dial would stick at 200 banked species.

Complicating matters is some seed species are too wet to be stored in the seed bank. Drying them destroys them and attempting to freeze them wet would cause the water inside to expand, exploding the cells. Cryopreservation is one option for these seeds, but not something the cash-strapped indigenous seed bank has access to. It’s estimated about around 20% of indigenous trees could fall into this category.

Is this normal?

Bec Stanley is the curator of Auckland’s Botanic Gardens.

She’s had an empty freezer waiting for seeds since 2013. Like other regional botanic gardens, Auckland volunteered to hold duplicate seed collections held by the indigenous bank which is seed banking best practice. If a disaster destroys one location, then all is not lost. So far the garden’s help hasn’t been called on. McGill told Newsroom currently there is no duplicate storage being done, although it’s a topic being discussed.

From what’s she’s seen many developed countries have government funded seed banks with long-term funding, rather relying on dribs and drabs of money.

In Australia there are state funded seed banks in each state as well as a nationally funded seed bank. Some, like New South Wales seed bank at Mount Annan is a state-of-the-art building which Auckland’s Botanic Garden staff describe as being like “Disney Land” for plant conservationists. Other seed banks aren’t so swish.

Australia’s national seed bank is one of the less swish solutions. Seeds are processed in portacom-style buildings and stored in chilled shipping containers.

Stanley thinks a good solution doesn’t have to be hugely expensive, but does require security of ongoing funds.

“They’ve got quite pokey, cramped, humble conditions, but they’re doing amazing work.”

What’s an ideal solution?

A purpose-built facility, with capability to store seeds and with long-term funding, is considered the ideal solution, however it’s not clear this is likely.

The ministry for business innovation and employment funds a number of what it calls Nationally Significant Collections and Databases to the tune of $19-million per year. The criteria is being critical to New Zealand science and deliver public benefit and that the benefits accrue to many users and third parties.

The Margot Forde Germplasm Centre, where agricultural grasses are stored is funded, but the indigenous seed bank, which piggy backs a shelf in the facility is not.

The indigenous seed bank is also not mentioned in the update document of a lengthy review being conducted by the Ministry on New Zealand’s various collections and database, although McGill said he did submit information to it. The review’s purpose is to ensure there is an enduring funding model for important collections.

Putting the question to scientists of what is an ideal solution gets a range of responses.

Bio-Protection Research Centre’s Sarah Wyse, recently returned to New Zealand after working at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank where she was researching how to bank tricky seeds. She stresses the importance of long-term funding rather than one-off projects.

“You need to be thinking long term, you need to be looking after these species for decades. What happens in three years when the funding runs out? ‘We’ll just turn the freezers off, sorry guys.’ We need long term investment in these things.”

Part of the success of Kew’s seed bank which aims to conserve 25% of the world’s species with priority given to plants at risk from land use and climate change, is the continual setting of targets of species saved. Wyse thinks this could be adopted in New Zealand.

“I think if we had a goal and a date and say let’s get 20% of our plants done by this date and 50% by this date, or whatever is feasible — and funding associated with the project — that would be fabulous. That would really get things going.”

New Zealand’s seed bank is a partner to Kew. Support comes in the way of scientific and technical advice, not funding. While most partner countries send a backup duplicate set of seeds to Kew for storage New Zealand does the reverse.

When the agreement was signed it was thought storing taonga species offshore was not a palatable solution.

Some think closer consultation with Māori about seed banking is needed.

Plant and Food’s Nick Waipara is a member of the Māori biosecurity network. He thinks a two-tiered approach could work and lend itself to a Māori perspective.

“Having a national framework is really good, but also recognising their will be local and regional needs.”

One tier might be seeds of national significance are stored centrally in a national seed bank, while other, locally important seeds are kept in the region they come from.

Already he knows local iwi have been trained by Kew in seed banking for local plants.

“Māori have our own ways of collecting and harvesting seed and selecting which trees would be the seed mother — the various plants selected for various properties to be planted again.”

He describes the training given by Kew as integrating traditional knowledge of plants with contemporary conservation techniques.

Peter de Lange worries about relying on seed banks scattered around the country.

His view is seed banks should be a repository of seeds for all the citizens of New Zealand and should be a standalone unit whose funding doesn’t change with three-yearly election cycles: “It should be funded by the taxpayer, but independent of political whim and business pressures.”

However, beyond a seed bank he thinks a greater focus should be given to plant conservation in general before climate change adds more pressure to plants already under pressure.

“If we keep on killing plants at the rate we are doing, we’re basically shutting ourselves in a sealed tank and breathing all the oxygen. This is a very serious issue and in many ways a damn sight more serious issue facing the country than a lot of the environmental things people are getting concerned about.”


This story originally appeared in Newsroom — a publication in New Zealand. It is republished here as part of the Mail & Guardian’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

​Farah Hancock

Client Media Releases

Utility outages: looking at the big picture
UKZN scientists get L'Or'eal-UNESCO Women in Science grants
Springbok-mania hits MTN head office
Optimise your SMS campaigns this Black Friday