Work begins on Monday on a vault in the frozen earth of an Arctic mountain, off northern Norway, that will safeguard a vast collection of the world’s seeds.
The vault will eventually hold 3m seed samples from every known variety of food crop, ranging from common staples such as wheat and potatoes to exotic specimens whose existence is endangered in the wild.
Prime Ministers Matti Vanhanen of Finland, Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, Goran Persson of Sweden, Geir H. Haarde of Iceland and Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark during a ceremony marking the establishment of a global seed bank in Longyearbyen, Spitzbergen. Cary Fowler is a modern day Noah but he isn't building an Ark -- he's the mastermind behind the "doomsday vault" being built beneath the Arctic permafrost to safely store the world's crops for thousands of years.(AFP/Erik Johansen)
The collection will provide a seed collection of last resort – should a disaster such as an asteroid strike or extreme climate change result in mass crop extinctions, humans will be able to resurrect a species. It will focus initially on food crops, but not to the exclusion of other seeds.
Nicknamed the “doomsday vault”, the Svalbard International Seed Vault is the creation of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a charity set up to protect plants, with the aid of the Norwegian government.
Conditions in Svalbard, within the Arctic circle, are considered ideal for preserving seeds, which will be kept behind blast-proof doors in watertight foil containers behind concrete walls a metre thick.
Some samples held in “black boxes” will be released only in the event that all other sources have been destroyed or exhausted.
However, Cary Fowler, executive secretary of the trust, said: “Crop diversity is imperilled not just by a cataclysmic event, such as a nuclear war, but also by natural disasters, accidents, mismanagement, and short-sighted budget cuts.”
Access to a diversity of plants was essential to the future of agriculture, because combining the genes of one plant with another gave rise to new varieties, he said. But many plant varieties are neglected and at risk of being lost, as farmers no longer grow them and the world’s existing seed banks are not managed in a co-ordinated fashion.
Mr Cary said most seed banks were maintained by governments or research institutions that frequently reappraised budgets, putting them at risk of closure. There was insufficient international co-operation to save seeds, and many collections faced an uncertain future without Svalbard.
For instance, the potato blight that led to more than 1m deaths in Ireland in the 19th century still poses a problem, with recent outbreaks in Alaska and Bangladesh. The solution may lie in the seed banks in South America which could be used to develop blight-resistant varieties. But one of these gene banks nearly lost its entire potato collection recently when its refrigeration system broke down. Such seeds can now be held in Svalbard.
A study found that under conditions in Svalbard, for most food crops could remain viable for hundreds of years, while others, including grains, could survive for thousands of years.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006