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Doomsday seed vault for food security

Entrance to the global seed vault in the village of Longyearbyen on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.
(Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust)

Should a major catastrophe hit the planet, a doomsday seed vault deep in the Arctic ice will ensure that survivors never go hungry.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built by the Norwegian government for the benefit of mankind, is named after the archipelago where it is located. The Rome-based non-governmental organisation, Global Crop Diversity Trust, will fund its operation.

The vault is hidden in a mountain deep in the Arctic permafrost at the village of Longyearbyen, and will house more than 200,000 crop varieties from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. The seeds will bolster food security should any natural or manmade disaster affect agricultural systems or gene banks.

The first seed collection will go into the vault on 26 February 2008 and the managers expect regular contributions until the vault contains seeds of most of the world’s crops. Seeds can only be accessed once the original seed collections have been lost.

Duplicate seeds of existing varieties are drawn from the collection maintained by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which holds 600,000 plant varieties in crop gene banks in its centres across the world.

On 31 January, the Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), a CGIAR affiliate, shipped 7,000 seed samples from more than 36 African countries to Oslo, en route to the Longyearbyen village.

The samples include unique varieties of domesticated and wild cowpeas, maize, soybeans and the Bambara groundnut, which the IITA has been collecting since the 1970s.

Most of the IITA seeds are placed under the auspices of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, which holds them in trust for the benefit of the global community.

The seeds will be stored at –18 degrees Celsius in specially designed, five-ply aluminium foil packages inside sealed boxes stored on high shelves inside the vault. The low temperature and limited access to oxygen will ensure low metabolic activity and delay aging.

Gene banks important

The CGIAR collections have helped plant breeders searching for traits to combat destructive crop diseases and pests, such as the black sigatoka fungus, which is devastating banana production in East Africa, and grain borer beetle, which is destroying maize in Kenya.

They have also been used to help restore agricultural systems after conflicts and natural disasters. Seed varieties from Afghanistan and Iraq maintained at the CGIAR-supported International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, Syria, have helped revitalise crop diversity in these war-torn regions.

“Svalbard will be able to help replenish gene banks if they’re hit,” said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Iraq’s gene bank, in the town of Abu Ghraib, was ransacked by looters in 2003, but fortunately there was a duplicate at the CGIAR centre in Syria.


Photo: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust
Inside the global seed vault in a village on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago

In 2006, typhoon Xangsane seriously damaged the national rice gene bank of the Philippines. “Unfortunately, these kinds of national gene bank horror stories are fairly commonplace,” said Fowler. “The Svalbard Global Seed Vault makes the CGIAR’s gene bank collections safer than ever.”

After the Asian tsunami disaster in 2004, the CGIAR-supported International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) used its collections to provide farmers with rice varieties suitable for growing in fields that had been inundated with salt water.

The gene bank at the CGIAR-supported International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Palmira, Colombia, was instrumental in providing bean varieties to help farmers in Honduras and Nicaragua recover from Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Biodiversity vital

Biodiversity is critical in building crop resistance to pests and diseases, and enabling cultivation in harsher conditions like drought, salinity and flooding, which will likely increase with global climate change, particularly in poor countries.

Cowpeas and dozens of other crops, like cassava, yams, and millets, are known as “orphan” crops, because they receive less attention than they deserve relative to their value and importance.

According to researchers at the World Vegetable Centre in Taiwan, up to 27 “orphan” crops with a value of US$100 billion are grown on 250 million hectares (618 million acres) in developing countries.

“So called ‘orphan’ crops like cowpea and groundnut are not minor or insignificant crops,” said Fowler. “They are of great importance to regional food security. In addition, they are often adapted to harsh environments and are diverse in terms of their genetic, agroclimatic, and economic niches.”

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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