You probably haven’t heard of Axel Diederichsen, yet he holds our past, present and future in the palm of his hand. He’s been entrusted to protect a resource our very existence depends upon, and it on us.
He says the nature of his work poses large philosophical questions and also preserves our cultural heritage. He is a seed saver on an international stage. Give him five minutes, and he’ll forever change the way you think about plant cultivation and diversity.
To Diederichsen, cultivated plants are an integral part of our cultural history. And like the noted Russian botanist and geneticist, Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, who identified cultivated plants’ centres of origin, Diederichsen believes the observation of cultivated plants and their diversity is as important to understanding our human history as archaeological artifacts or written records.
Philosophy and science are inseparable in Diederichsen’s world. He’s a research scientist and the curator of Plant Gene Resources of Canada, or PGRC, our national seed genebank located in Saskatoon, Sask. He has dedicated his life to preserving plant diversity because he believes it is important to understanding our past, supporting life in the present and as building blocks for future needs.
Diederichsen has been in his current position at the Canadian genebank since it relocated to Saskatoon from Ottawa in 1998.
He spent his early life preparing for this role across international borders, diverse settings, social and political upheaval, and always a burning desire to find answers to those big questions.
The 59-year-old scientist has come a long way from the mixed farm he grew up on in a small village in northern Germany near the coast of the Baltic Sea and the border with Denmark. The closest urban centre was Flensburg, about 15 kilometres away from his family’s farm.
In the early 1960s, in northern Germany, there was much more diversity on farms. At the Diederichsens’, there were cows, pigs, oxen, sows and many kinds of crops, such as rye, wheat, barley, winter wheat, legumes and rutabagas to feed the cows. Grassland was included in the rotation for use as a meadow for the cows or for hay.
The following decades brought with them large changes to agriculture in this region. Fields became bigger, the use of technology increased while the diversity on farms decreased, and three major crops, rapeseed, wheat and barley, became dominant.
This evolving agricultural setting, Diederichsen’s interactions with nature and an affinity for the sciences would play a large role in shaping his future. These influences merged to create in Diederichsen a curious disposition and the need to question and understand the world around him.
From an early age, Diederichsen had a keen interest in nature. He was also fascinated by our relationships with nature, and how we interact, interpret and shape it.
In addition to science, Diederichsen enjoyed the humanities and languages, which he says helped broaden his view of the world. After he finished his primary and secondary school education, he served an obligatory term in the civil service. This was during the height of the Cold War.
“We were very nervous in Germany at that time about world peace. After that, I was not ready to enter university because I had interests and so many questions. I was not sure that was the right path for me. Instead I decided to get a practical education in agriculture.”
For two years, Diederichsen grew cereals and vegetables on a small farm in Norway. However, it was after this, during his time spent on a Swiss farm where he was learning to make cheese, that he met a plant breeder who opened up a whole new world to him. Being raised on a farm, Diederichsen thought he had a good understanding of what wheat, barley and oat crops were — he was to find out he was wrong.
The plant breeder was working on cultivars adapted to low-input agriculture at high elevations. Diederichsen was introduced to many different types of crop plants he’d never seen before, which helped him make the decision to attend university to study agriculture.
“It is amazing if you see where species, for example, our wheat, originated from and compare them to cultivated wheat. The striking differences, the major steps that were made already 10,000 years ago by humans who understood how to intervene in order to shape these crops that are still feeding the world. That interested me a lot and then interested me also how we approach these things today when we adopt these inherited crops and the diversity that we inherited and the diversity we still depend on.”
Diederichsen attended school first in Flensburg and then Kiel, completing his post-secondary studies at the University of Gottingen in northern Germany. When a position opened up at the German genebank, then called the Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), at Gatersleben, which is about 200 kilometres southwest of Berlin, Diederichsen didn’t hesitate.
At the German genebank, which these days is called Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), Diederichsen could finish his master’s degree and PhD in a facility that housed a very broad collection of species and, at that time, considered one of the world’s best plant genebanks.
“You were surrounded by all types of very diverse, unusual, crop plants for agriculture, for horticulture and medicinal plants. There I could work with crop diversity and really immerse myself into this sphere of preserving, studying and understanding the diversity of cultivated plants.”
However, this marked a time when preserving seeds and the genebanks that housed them in Eastern Europe would make headlines.
Diederichsen joined the German genebank in the early 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall — a time of incredible social, political and economic upheaval. The genebank was located in what was formerly known as East Germany.
This waning of Soviet power and the eventual collapse of communist regimes caused great change across Eastern European countries and there was considerable concern about crop plant diversity loss and seed preservation. As part of the German genebank, Diederichsen was on the front line of saving and protecting that diversity.
“It was also the time after the fall of the wall in Germany and the German genebank was located in the eastern part of Germany. It was a time of big changes and many new possibilities. We had very interesting interactions with non-governmental organizations that were interested in preserving diversity.
“Many Eastern European countries underwent big changes. There was, for example, in Poland, a very small, structured agriculture that was loaded with diversity of crop plants that was very challenged…. So, there were many interactions also with people who took an interest in that and the gene bank actively participated in research projects and collecting missions to ensure that this diversity would be preserved.”
Diederichsen finished his PhD while working at the German genebank. His passions were, and still are, what he calls big diversity, the preservation of this diversity and the unanswered questions that go along with them.
In 1998, opportunity came knocking. The recently relocated, Saskatoon-based PGRC was seeking a curator. Diederichsen flew to Canada for an interview — it couldn’t have been a better fit.
At the PGRC, Diederichsen’s primary task was, and is to this day, to ensure the seeds under his care are in good condition and properly preserved so they can be used for research, breeding and education.
That’s about 115,000 envelopes containing seeds representing approximately 1,000 botanical species. The genebank’s focus is cereals, which make up about 85 per cent of the preserved samples.
“We have huge collections of barley, 40,000 accessions of barley, 28,000 samples of oat and maybe 13,000 samples of wheat. That includes the crop species and also the crop wild relatives.”
There are also large collections of forages, flax, rapeseed, including canola, and their wild relatives. Everyday decisions include whether to integrate seed samples into the collection when they are received, seed increases, and to verify identification and create information about the seeds.
Those seeds also need to be cleaned, entered into the database and, if it’s decided, to become part of the active genebank collection. Seeds must be stored in large vaults, which are kept at 4 C and -20 C for longer-term storage. Also, backup samples are deposited at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, just in case something happens to the seed samples in Saskatoon.
Diederichsen compares his job as curator with running a seed business.
“You have to ensure that the seeds are viable, that you have sufficient seeds. You have to be in contact with the clients that need the seeds. You have to produce information about the seeds and you have to do that with a larger group of people. This requires a lot of organizational tasks that you have to work on — staffing tasks, making decisions on which crops to plant, setting priorities and using the resources you have available in the most efficient way.”
For the curator, there’s also the scientific component of the job — research, breeding, the study of specimens and aspects of crop diversity in the collection, collaboration with other scientists, exchanges of information, screening for trait qualities like disease resistance and reviewing research papers, among other duties.
Diederichsen also enjoys the routine and organizational aspects of his position as well as working with and managing a team with the same interests and passion for saving seeds.
Now, crop diversity attracts attention at local, national and international levels, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, which has emphasized the need for strong, safe and secure food value chains. And it’s not just industry stakeholders paying attention to plant diversity, but the general public, which Diederichsen says is a good direction.
“In general, what I see as very, very positive is that many people, many more than in the past, seem to take an interest in this diversity of crop plants. And that is not only scientists and plant breeders, who have very sophisticated tools today to work with this diversity, but it’s also the general public.
“If you see what is happening in many cities here in Canada, also you see community gardens, you see people take an interest in their food, the diversity of food. The recent developments with this pandemic have maybe even increased this interest in questioning where does our food come from? What can we do locally?
“In general, I think we have much more engagement for many more people in this area, which I see as very, very positive, because the more people that engage in this field, the more diversity you will have. And the work of preserving this, working actively with this, rests on more shoulders. And that is what really makes such a system also sustainable. It would not be sustainable to have only these tasks in the hands of a very limited and few people or experts.”
Diederichsen has spent his life following his passion to preserve and better understand the diversity of crop plants and their wild relatives. It took an international village to raise this Canadian seed saver, who is not only preserving seeds, but our cultural heritage, while securing our present and future food and fibre needs. He’s not looking for attention, thanks or praise. For him, it is an honour to do so.
“I was invited as an immigrant to this country to help with preserving this national treasure of global significance, that really is a big privilege. I have always felt that from the very beginning and I still do so, that this country has entrusted this task to me. That is a big privilege.”
Contributor: Kari Belanger