Published on
The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)

The World Has Gone to Seed


f the so-called Doomsday Vault didn't exist, someone would have to invent it -- probably a science fiction writer. Buried beneath Arctic permafrost on a remote Norwegian island, the secured, remotely monitored vault has been built to withstand everything from global warming to nuclear war.

And what precious objects will be stored there for retrieval in case of planetary Armageddon? Not BlackBerrys, cellphones, computers, large screen TVs or any of the other modern detritus many of us believe we can't live without. Not even gold, oil or medicine.

The world is banking its future on a cache of seeds --- and that says plenty about what is necessary for survival and how far many of us have come from understanding this.

The Svalbard International Seed Vault, which has been described as a modern-day Noah's Ark, is designed to preserve the genetic diversity of the plants responsible for the world's food supply. Canada has sent 6,000 samples of barley, canola and other grains, and countries around the world have so far contributed a total of 100 million seeds.

Many countries already have seed banks, but they are increasingly vulnerable. Seed collections have been lost due to power outages, a typhoon, even looting in the case of war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our world may not be safe, but its food supply should be.

In recent decades, there have been growing concerns that our unhealthy diets and the industrialized farming methods that produce our food, especially in North America, have reduced the genetic pool of plants. Amateur and professional seed-savers around the world, increasingly concerned about the erosion of genetic diversity in food, have been saving and sharing heritage seeds to keep plant breeds alive. In the 1800s, for example, there were more than 5,000 commercial varieties of apples grown in the world. Now, most commercial apples are related to just a handful of those varieties.

Writer and food industry critic Michael Pollan expressed the need for seed diversity this way in his most recent book, In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto: "Today, a mere four crops account for two-thirds of the calories humans eat. When you consider that humankind has historically consumed some 80,000 edible species, and that 3,000 of these have been in widespread use, this represents a radical simplification of the food web." Humans are omnivores, he notes, "requiring somewhere between 50 and 100 different chemical compounds and elements to be healthy. It's hard to believe that we can get everything we need from a diet consisting largely of processed corn, soybeans, wheat and rice."

The seed vault is a recognition that diverse seeds are crucial to human survival.

Still, for many in the western world, it might just as well be science fiction.

Life is about as far removed from a handful of seeds as it can be. The number of Canadians who have held, planted and nurtured seeds is ever shrinking. Even fewer grow their own food.

As our relationship with food becomes ever more distant -- what we eat is often processed beyond recognition -- our connection to seeds has all but vanished.

The Doomsday Vault is a reminder of how badly we need them.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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