Icy Global Seed Vault Hosts Global Warming Meeting

LONGYEARBYEN, Norway, February 26, 2009 (ENS) – Four tons of seeds representing hundreds of crop species were delivered today to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as it celebrated its one-year anniversary. The vault in nothern Norway is intended to serve as a fail-safe backup should the original samples be lost or damaged or to provide a Noah’s ark for agriculture in the event of a global catastrophe.

The seeds arriving today are from food crop collections maintained by Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, the United States, and three international agricultural research centers in Syria, Mexico and Colombia.

Located near the village of Longyearbyen on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, the repository has in one year amassed a collection of more than 400,000 unique seed samples – some 200 million seeds.

“We are especially proud to see such a large number of countries work quickly to provide samples from their collections for safekeeping in the vault,” said Norwegian Agriculture Minister Lars Peder Brekk. “It shows that there are situations in the world today capable of transcending politics and inspiring a strong unity of purpose among a diverse community of nations.”

“Right now, our world faces an unprecedented challenge – a challenge that threatens the quality of life on every continent. I am talking about climate change,” said Brekk. “As science tries to keep up with the looming threats of changing climates and weather patterns, increasing temperatures and melting ice caps, we here in Svalbard are well aware that the most important use of crop diversity in the coming decades will be helping agriculture adapt to these changes.”

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault contains seed samples deep under a frozen mountain midway between Norway and the North Pole. (Photo by Simon Jeppson courtesy NordGen)

“The vault was opened last year to ensure that one day all of humanity’s existing food crop varieties would be safely protected from any threat to agricultural production, natural or man made. It’s amazing how far we have come toward accomplishing that goal,” said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which operates the seed vault in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center in Sweden.

To mark the anniversary of the vault, experts on global warming and its effects on food production have gathered in Longyearbyen to discuss how climate change could pose a major threat to food production, and to examine crop diversity’s role in averting crisis.

Speakers at the seminar “Frozen seeds in a frozen mountain – feeding a warming world” include the authors of a study published last month in “Science” magazine warning that by the end of this century the average temperatures during growing seasons in many regions will probably be higher than the most extreme heat recorded over the last 100 years.

One of 21 boxes of seeds shipped from Nigeria filled with 7,000 unique seed samples from more than 36 African nations (Photo courtesy International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria)

“This means that the vital importance of crop diversity to our food supply, which inspired the creation of the seed vault, is neither remote nor theoretical but immediate and real,” said David Battisti, a climate change expert at the University of Washington and one of the lead authors of the paper.

“When we see research indicating that global warming could diminish maize production by 30 percent in southern Africa in only 20 years’ time, it shows that crop diversity is needed to adapt agriculture to climate change right now,” said Frank Loy, former under secretary of state for global affairs and an advisor to President Barack Obama’s transition team on environment and climate change.

With its new acquisitions, the vault is now providing a secure second home for a third of humanity’s most important crop varieties, and a level of security for crop diversity conservation that was not available until a year ago. More genebanks and countries are in the process of signing agreements and preparing seeds collections to deposit in the vault.

Like all seeds coming to the vault, the samples arriving today are duplicates of seeds from other collections.

Today’s shipment includes samples of 32 varieties of potatoes in addition to oat, wheat, barley, and native grass species from two of Ireland’s national gene banks.

Two varieties of Irish potatoes at a Ballymena market (Photo by Gangchinabz)

Ireland’s participation and its inclusion of potato varieties is significant because it was a lack of diversity that is believed to have made Ireland’s potato crop vulnerable to the devastating blight of the mid-1800s that led to the deaths of more than one million people.

In addition, 3,800 samples of wheat and barley have come from Switzerland’s national seed bank in Changins.

The United States sent 20,000 samples from the seed repository maintained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service that represents 361 crop species, including pepper, lettuce, pea, rice, flax, sorghum, wheat and safflower seeds.

They include samples of crop varieties that originally came from 151 countries held at the USDA’s National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, which contains more than 500,000 accessions of cultivated plants and their wild relatives.

The vault at Svalbard has so far received duplicates of nearly half of the crop samples maintained by the genebanks of the international agricultural research centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

About 1,400 genebanks are operated worldwide, but the vault is not meant to replace them. Rather, it provides a backup in the event that seeds, and the genetic diversity encoded with them, are lost to equipment failures, mismanagement, budgetary cuts, natural disasters and other catastrophes.

These international genebanks are seen as the custodians of the crown jewels of crop diversity. This diversity has been instrumental in the breeding of new varieties responsible for the remarkable productivity gains made in global agriculture in recent decades, and in averting food crises when farm production has been threatened by natural disasters, plant diseases, and plant pests.

Cowpeas for sale in a Nigerian market (Photo courtesy IITAN)

All seeds stored in the Seed Vault remain the property of the country or institution which sent them. All stored seeds at the Seed Vault are accessible by directly contacting the genebank which sent them.

These institutions send their seed collections to the Seed Vault in order to benefit from the safety and insurance this provides – storing seeds in the vault is entirely free to them, and is voluntary.

The depositing institution signs a contract with NordGen, the genetic resource center of the Nordic countries, which is responsible for the management of the vault. Neither the managers of the Seed Vault, Norway, the Trust, nor anyone else has any right even to open the boxes in which the seeds arrive and are stored.

Information about which countries have sent seeds, and the seeds which are already stored in the vault, is all public. The database of the Seed Vault can be searched here.

The Global Crop Diversity Trust aims to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide. Although crop diversity is fundamental to fighting hunger and to the very future of agriculture, funding is unreliable and diversity is being lost. The Trust is the only organization working worldwide to solve this problem, and has already raised over $140 million.

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