Kew Gardens and The Millennium Seed Bank

These woven willow sculptures by Tom Hare, which are on display at Kew, represent the seeds at the Millennium Seed bank

These woven willow sculptures by Tom Hare, which are on display at Kew, represent the seeds at the Millennium Seed bank


The tranquil, immaculately maintained gardens are what most members of the public associate with Kew. However, behind these beautiful botanical displays lies a murky colonial history and controversial conservation projects. When the botanical gardens first came under the stewardship of Joseph Hooker in the 18th century, Kew became a scientific facility where new plant varieties could be collected and experimented on. The materials produced from these plants would fuel the industrial revolution in Britain. However, while the British empire prospered, there were those who suffered from the loss of local resources and were unable to compete with the cheap labour force in the colonies. Nowadays, conservation projects like the Millennium Seed Bank are intended to benefit the whole of humanity and the natural world is no longer viewed as an endless resource to be plundered by the richest and most powerful nations. Having a diversity of plant-life is now celebrated within the western scientific world and human beings are seen to have a responsibility to act as guardians of “global heritage”. When funding for these conservation projects becomes tight, economic discourses around plant preservation become more explicit. The economic benefits for the UK as well as its partner countries have been emphasised by those running the Millennium Seed Bank in mission statements and promotional videos on the Kew Gardens website. The metaphor of a ‘bank’ is used to present this project as a guaranteed long-term investment with possible short-term financial benefits from the scientific research which will be made possible. I will be looking at the way scientific ecology has tried to move away from its colonial origins by emphasising inclusivity in plant preservation. However the economic aspects, which are sometimes disguised by more scientific or humanitarian discourses, are still integral to 21st century botany.

In Brockway’s article she discusses how important an institution like Kew was in the instigation new farming practices in parts of the British empire where the climate facilitated the growth of exotic plants (1979). Brockway argues that Kew was integral to the advancement of industry because before the scientific research laboratories of the modern day, Kew was the only place where plants were experimented on and new uses and properties were discovered. Botanists were able to discover cultivation techniques which allowed for much faster production in the colonies allowing industries to flourish during the nineteenth century (p450-451). However, the reason production costs were so low was that plants, often transported in seed form, were effectively smuggled out of their country of origin and re-planted in colonies with similar climates. One example of this type of transfer was the movement of Cinchona seeds from Latin America to India which was a British colony in the nineteenth century. The Cinchona tree is used in the production of Malaria medicine and stealing this natural resource resulted in the Latin American countries losing out on the financial benefits of an extremely fruitful industry. The cultivation of cinchona was undertaken in India while the newly-independent Latin American countries were unable to compete with this cheap labour-force. The ease with which Britain was able to steal plants was partly due to ease with which seeds could be transported. Discoveries about the correct conditions for preservation and transportation of seeds were made by the botanists at Kew who kept a reserve of cinchona seeds which they could experiment on (p455-456). Kew’s use of seeds in conservation projects today will have undoubtedly been informed by the knowledge gained from these colonial transfers.

Joseph Hooker in India

‘Joseph Hooker collecting in India’ From Kew’s art & illustration library

Latour describes the institutionalisation of plant life by botanists creating a cool calm version of nature which is timeless and easy to analyse (1999, p34-40). The Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst provides us with exactly this view of nature. It is an incredible modern building surrounded by old-fashioned, immaculate gardens, much like those at Kew. There are large modern sculptures of seeds to highlight their aesthetic appeal, which is helpful as most of the seeds are kept out of public view in temperate houses. The overall effect is not one of opulence but rather of extreme organisation and authority. The visitor feels they can rely on Kew’s scientists to undertake this important task without much need for observation. The Millennium project was sparked off in 1995 when the National Lottery offered funding to Kew for a large-scale plant conservation proposal. One member of the Millennium Seed Bank staff who I met on my visit, acknowledged to me that the use of the word “bank” is part of an economic discourse and it did indeed feel at times like a very upmarket, bank. She said that this can be a useful metaphor because it demonstrates how the project provides long-term stability as well as short-term benefits for scientific research. Scientists are able to withdraw certain seeds and conduct experiments on them, the suggestion being that when they do, the experiments they conduct with their loaned seeds will benefit medicine or research which feeds back in to the economy. Another member of staff, Ruth who was a researcher told me about the financial benefits of biodiversity in farming where crops like those taken during the colonial period, were established based on a single plant or seed and over the years this lack of diversity has inbred weaknesses. Storing a variety of seeds from a single species and engaging in seed swaps can ensure that this type of problem is easily resolved in what seems to be an egalitarian way.

When the financial crash hit, the Millennium Seed bank was no longer able to secure government funding to continue their project. In order to encourage other countries to become involved in the seed bank project, Kew’s marketing team used the bank metaphor to encourage the idea that this was a good investment opportunity. By being invested in the bank, seeds could increase in value if scientists discovered medical uses while they were there. The Millennium Seed Bank was always intended to be a collaborative project and so there are partner seed banks in many countries around the world, from Israel to Svalbard. However, the philanthropical element of this project and the emphasis on a single human society can make it difficult at times to deduce exactly how the financial benefits are being transferred back to the countries which donate seeds to Kew. When scientific discoveries are made in the UK for example the seeds are then theoretically available to an international community. While resources like seeds may be shared, scientific research is unlikely to be treated with the same communal attitude and so yet again there seems to be a risk that western countries with the most scientific resources are likely to make the most profit from this project, in the short-term at least.

Photo: A Malagasy village

While every effort is being made to make the Millennium Seed Bank project appear to be a collaborative global enterprise, as far removed from Kew’s colonial history as possible, there are still cross-cultural barriers to this global concept of ecological preservation. An ethnography conducted by Evers and Seagle (2012) analysed how concepts of “global heritage” and biodiversity are at odds with local understandings of nature in Madagascar. The Malagasy consider land to be an integral part of their society. The idea that areas of land must be protected as global heritage sites by outsiders conflicts with Malagasy traditions relating to the use of local forests as a resource (p98-99). Mining companies, keen to exploit the local minerals in these forests have teamed up with conservationists and, using environmental discourses, made the argument that the deforestation by local people is more harmful to this global heritage site than mining practice. Researchers from Kew Gardens among others, published a ‘Biodiversity Book’ legitimising these claims (Vincelette et. al., 2007). The book states that the Malagasy are tied in to a cycle of self-degradation where they both “endure and participate in a process of progressive deforestation and degradation of the environment in which they live”. Malagasy traditions are portrayed as unsustainable and damaging to the environment as well as local people whereas mining companies are praised for preserving biodiversity by preventing further deforestation. Evers and Seagle claim that Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank promotes a concept of global heritage which disregards the Malagasy definition of heritage and excludes them from their ancestral land and the natural resources it contains (2012, p102).

While projects like the Millennium Seed Bank focus on the long term benefits of biodiversity for the whole of humanity, there are complex political and economic conflicts today which have to be considered when engaging in global conservation projects. Humanitarian, scientific and economic discourses overlap in the public material surrounding this project but in practice it appears as though Kew’s international reputation and considerable financial backing allows them to dominate those who do not ascribe to the same concepts of heritage and conservation. The way in which Britain and other colonial countries collected plants in the past demonstrates how exploitative plant transportation can be. Although the financial aspect of plant preservation is no longer highlighted so explicitly, it is still an integral part of the Kew’s international project and there is still a danger of corruption and exploitation in this field. However, it is an undeniably complex task, finding the balance between conserving culture and livelihood and protecting the environment. While Evers and Seagle argued for greater protection of Malagasy cultural heritage, they do not address the perhaps justifiable concern conservationists’ have about the long-term viability of Malagasy traditions which treat the forest as though it were an everlasting resource. There have also been efforts to make the Millennium Seed Bank more beneficial to local communities around the world by preserving what they consider to be their most important resources in the country of origin and improving agricultural techniques to ensure that livelihoods are sustainable (Way et. al., 2010). At Wakehurst and Kew Gardens, plants are perfectly preserved, aesthetically cultivated and easy to categorise but the political and economic side of plant conservation can be much wilder field to navigate.



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