Conserving the Seeds of the World

2/26/2008 // On February 26, the Global Crop Diversity Trust seed vault at Svalbard will be inaugurated by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. Crop seeds from the entire world will be put into frozen storage for the future – 364 feet below the mountainside permafrost.

Crop seeds are the source of human sustenance, the product of 10,000 years of selective breeding dating to the dawn of agriculture. The Svalbard vault will be the ultimate backup, safeguarding the world’s agriculture from a global catastrophe, such as nuclear war, asteroid strike, plant disease, or climate change.

Collection of seed samples and maintenance of the facility is being organized by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is tasked with the “conservation of crop diversity in perpetuity.” According to the trust’s executive director, Cary Fowler, the Arctic location is ideal because it is remote and offers a high level of stability even if the rest of the world underwent a cataclysmic event. “We looked at radiation levels inside the mountain and looked at the area’s geological structure. We also modeled climate change in a drastic form 200 years into the future, which included the melting of ice sheets at the North and South Poles, and Greenland, to make sure that this site was above the resulting water level,” Dr. Fowler told BBC News. “By building the vault deep inside the mountain, the surrounding permafrost would continue to provide natural refrigeration if the mechanical system failed,” he said.

The seeds, some smaller than poppy seeds and others as large as coconuts, will be stored at 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). How long frozen seeds can maintain their ability to germinate depends on the species. Peas may only survive for 20-30 years, while sunflowers and grain crops can last for hundreds of years.

The giant freezer will house batches of 500 seeds each from up to three million plant species, representing virtually every variety of crop on the planet. Scientists estimate there are an astonishing 100,000 varieties of rice alone, the major staple of billions of humans, and more than 1,000 varieties of banana, a nutritious fruit of global importance.

Modern agriculture and food production require uniform crop plants and the same varieties are planted over increasingly larger spaces. Much of the diversity can therefore no longer be found in the fields. A seed vault can help to preserve the diversity that is lost in the wild. “We are all interested in conserving biological diversity in agriculture, particularly crops that are of importance to the food supply. I think many countries will use the vault to improve their preparedness against plant diseases and other threats,” Norwegian Minister of Agriculture and Food Terje Riis-Johansen said.

Svalbard is home to a small community of scientists, coal miners, and adventurers. The group of islands is the northernmost place in the world with regular commercial air service. Arctic foxes, reindeer, and polar bears are common sights on the frozen tundra.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and the prime ministers of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland laid down the cornerstone of what will be the Fort Knox of seeds, in the summer of 2006. The vault is now completed and will be inaugurated by Norway's Prime Minister on February 26.

The Norwegian government is covering the $5 million construction costs of the structure, which is built into solid rock. The repository itself will be lined with three-foot-thick layers of high-quality insulating concrete. Air-handling equipment will circulate air from outdoors during the winter months.

The facility will operate with minimal human intervention. “Somebody will go up there once every year to physically check inside to see that everything is okay, but there will be no full-time staff,” Dr. Fowler said.

The physical storage facility will be in Norwegian hands, but the seeds will not be Norwegian property. The seed samples belong to the 100 or so countries that have endorsed the vault. They will be returned if the original samples of the seed are lost.

More than 1,000 seed banks already exist, from large national collections in the United States and China, to small ones at universities and research labs. But few of these repositories currently meet international standards and have funding for perpetual maintenance. And many are vulnerable to disaster. A seed bank in the Philippines was destroyed by a typhoon last fall, leaving seed samples covered by two feet of water and mud.

The idea for a global seed vault dates back to as early as the 1980s, but only in 2001 did the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adopt the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. With this agreement in place, the  thought of a seed bank on Svalbard resurfaced. The FAO Commission for Genetic Resources and other international actors have expressed great support for the Norwegian initiative.

Arild Strømmen / Royal Norwegian Embassy

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