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Seeds of Survival

In Kenya’s mountains, botanists Paul Kirika and Tim Pearce struggle to find rare plant species that could hold the key to human food security.

The human race relies on a tiny number of plant species: 80% of our plant food comes from just 12 domesticated species. With a predicted 2.5 billion more mouths to feed by 2050, the search for wild relatives of these major crop species has become vital for breeding genetic research into new varieties.

In the mountains and drylands of Kenya, botanists Paul Kirika and Tim Pearce search for seeds from rare wild relatives of varieties of wild rice, yams, tomatoes and aubergine. Will these seeds be the key to unlocking new genetic material for breeding programmes that will help secure human food sources? This is one of many trips the two have made to remote areas of the Kenyan countryside, looking for plant species of high human value or those threatened with extinction.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Paul Kirika is one of Kenya's leading botanists, working out of the East African Herbarium at Nairobi's National Museum. Tim works for the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership based at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, England.

Witness accompanies these two dedicated men on location, spending nights out in the forest as they work through their list of priority species, the ones most under threat and with the largest economic potential. Days are spent chasing leads from local farmers and villagers about new and rare plants found in the vicinity, and painstakingly combing the bushland for the viable seeds. Paul and Tim know that some species have been lost already so they are working with farming communities to encourage the replanting of indigenous trees from collected seed.

As they search, Paul and Tim are constantly aware of the pressures on the land: from ever-expanding towns and cities, from de-forestation in a country where many rely on firewood for cooking and heating, and from the recent overspill of people into Kenya from conflict along its border with Somalia. “Seeds for Life” is a long term collaborative programme between Kenya’s National Museums, National Gene Bank, Wildlife and Forestry Services and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Seed collections from over 2,000 of Kenya’s 7500 species have been secured in the National Gene Bank and at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank supporting agriculture, forestry, conservation and plant research. But with 1 in 5 of the worlds 380,000 plant species threatened with extinction, the race is on to ensure the survival of these vital components of life on earth.

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