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We need native seeds in order to respond to climate change, but there aren't enough

Seeds are seen as students at Eucalyptus Elementary School in in Hawthorne, Calif., learn to plant a vegetable garden on March 13, 2019. The U.S. supply of native seeds is currently too low to respond to climate change-related events, a new report finds.
David McNew/AFP via Getty Images
Seeds are seen as students at Eucalyptus Elementary School in in Hawthorne, Calif., learn to plant a vegetable garden on March 13, 2019. The U.S. supply of native seeds is currently too low to respond to climate change-related events, a new report finds.

In the wake of wildfires, floods and droughts, restoring damaged landscapes and habitats requires native seeds. The U.S. doesn't have enough, according to a reportreleased Thursday.

"Time is of the essence to bank the seeds and the genetic diversity our lands hold," the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) report said.

As climate change worsens extreme weather events, the damage left behind by those events will become more severe. That, in turn, will create greater need for native seeds — which have adapted to their local environments over the course of thousands of years — for restoration efforts.

But the report found that the country's supply of native seeds is already insufficient to meet the needs of agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which is the largest purchaser of native seeds and which commissioned the study in 2020. That lack of supply presents high barriers to restoration efforts now and into the future.

"The federal land-management agencies are not prepared to provide the native seed necessary to respond to the increasing frequency and severity of wildfire and impacts of climate change," the report concluded. Changing that will require "expanded, proactive effort" including regional and national coordination, it said.

In a statement, BLM said federal agencies and partners have been working to increase the native seed supply for many years. The bureau said it is reviewing the report's findings.

The report's recommendations "represent an important opportunity for us to make our collective efforts more effective," BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said.

While native plants are the best for habitat restoration, the lack of supply means restoration efforts often use non-native substitutes. They're less expensive and easier to come by, but they aren't locally adapted.

"Without native plants, especially their seeds, we do not have the ability to restore functional ecosystems after natural disasters and mitigate the effects of climate change," BLM said.

Some private companies produce native seeds, but that requires specialized knowledge and equipment. On top of that, they often lack starter seed, and demand is inconsistent — agencies make purchases in response to emergencies with timelines companies say are unrealistic. Proactively restoring public lands could help reduce this uncertainty and strain, the report recommends.

In order to sufficiently increase the supply of seeds, the report concluded that BLM also needs to upscale its Seed Warehouse System, which "would soon be inadequate in terms of physical climate-controlled capacity, staff, and expertise." There are currently two major warehouses with a combined capacity of 2.6 million pounds, with limited cold storage space.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kaitlyn Radde
Kaitlyn Radde is an intern for the Graphics and Digital News desks, where she has covered everything from the midterm elections to child labor. Before coming to NPR, she covered education data at Chalkbeat and contributed data analysis to USA TODAY coverage of Black political representation and NCAA finances. She is a graduate of Indiana University.