Doomsday seed vaults take root

Should an apocalypse occur, an Arctic vault ensures the future of crops.

nuclear armagedon 298.88 (photo credit: courtesy)
nuclear armagedon 298.88
(photo credit: courtesy)
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. Global Crop Diversity Trust, a Rome-based nongovernmental organization, will fund its operation, according to a new UN report. 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 man-made disaster affect agricultural systems or gene banks. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs the first seed collection will go into the vault on February 26, 2008, and the managers expect regular contributions until the vault contains seeds of most of the world's crops. Seeds in the Svalbard vault will 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 centers across the world. Israel inaugurated its own emergency food gene bank vault with original specimens last month. The vault, within thick walls and buried meters beneath the Agriculture Ministry's offices in Rishon Lezion, could withstand a nuclear attack, a ministry spokeswoman said. The vault is fitted with state-of-the-art cooling systems which maintain a temperature of -20 degrees Celsius and holds many specimens in their original state, before being genetically tampered with. The vault holds specimens from other countries as well, and Israel has provided specimens to other countries for inclusion in their vaults. Work on the vault was carried out by the Agricultural Research Organization of Israel - the Volcani Center. Should catastrophe befall Israel and food stocks become unattainable, it will be possible to take food specimens from the gene bank and replant, to "start all over again," says Ilana Pe'er, spokeswoman for the Volcani Center. According to Pe'er, Israel has not provided any specimens to the UN project at this stage. On January 31, 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 Organization, 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 on high shelves inside the vault. The low temperature and limited access to oxygen will ensure low metabolic activity and delay aging. "Svalbard will be able to help replenish gene banks if they're hit," Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, told the UN news service. 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 center in Syria.