AN AMBITIOUS project to safeguard future food supplies began on June 19 with the launch of a “Noah’s ark” for the world’s most important plants.
The new Svalbard International Seed Vault will serve as a repository for crucial seeds in the event of a global catastrophe, said Norway’s agriculture minister, Terje Riis-Johansen. Carved into the permafrost and rock of the remote Svalbard peninsula, it will eventually house 3 million seed samples from every country. “This facility will provide a practical means to re-establish crops obliterated by major disasters,” said Cary Fowler, the executive secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which will manage the seed bank. “But crop diversity is imperiled not just by a cataclysmic event, such as a nuclear war, but also by natural disasters, accidents, mismanagement, and short-sighted budget cuts.” Agriculture relies on collections of crop species and their wild relatives. Seed banks are vital to the development of new crop varieties and, without them, agriculture would grind to a halt. Samples of the world’s agricultural biodiversity, including crops such as wheat, apple and potato, are scattered across 1,400 seed banks around the world. All these seed banks are at risk from local problems. The Norwegian government and the Global Crop Diversity Trust have worked on the idea of building a global seed bank of last resort in the Arctic ice since 2004. The prime ministers of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland launched the $4.8 million project at a ceremony near the town of Longyearbyen, in Norway’s remote Svalbard Islands, roughly 990km from the north pole. The new bank will store its samples in a reinforced concrete tunnel drilled 70 metres into a mountain, guarded by two steel doors and remote-controlled from Sweden.