Ex situ seed storage underpins global agriculture and food supplies and enables the conservation of thousands of wild species of plants within national and international facilities. As an insurance policy against extinction, ex situ seed conservation is estimated to cost as little as 1% of in situ conservation. The assumptions, costs, risks and scientific challenges associated with ex situ plant conservation depend on the species, the methods employed and the desired storage time. Recent, relatively widespread evidence of less than expected longevity at conventional seed bank temperatures, innovations in the cryopreservation of recalcitrant-seeded species and economic comparators provide compelling evidence that ultra-cold storage should be adopted for the long-term conservation of plants. Policy instruments, such as the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (2011-2020), should respond to the evidence base and promote the implementation of cryopreservation for both tropical and temperate plants.