CBC News | June 21, 2006
Deep in an Arctic cave, a Noah's Ark for seed crops
Norway's agriculture minister has called the project a Noah's Ark for the world's agricultural heritage, launching the mission with just the right amount of risk and romanticism. But unlike the timbered vessel that Noah supposedly piloted through the swells, this one is supposed to stay put — in a remote Arctic cave, anchored by about 70 metres of stone and permafrost.
The new Svalbard International Seed Vault, unveiled Monday, is to be the ultimate repository for the world's most valued food crops, to protect samples of all the important varieties against global calamity, regional strife or just plain bad management.
The UN estimates 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of food crops has been lost over the past several decades
When the vault is fully operational, in a little more than a year's time, it will begin housing upward of three million seed samples from every country in the world. Some of these plants barely remain in cultivation, but they may contain a genetic richness yet to be fully explored.
The idea for a global seed bank sprang from the UN's Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993. It is to be managed by the UN-backed Global Crop Diversity Trust, to which Canada has been an important contributor. Norway, Sweden and a handful of other countries are taking the lead role in bringing the plan to fruition.
Norway first proposed the idea of a so-called doomsday vault a year ago and will drill a concrete reinforced tunnel 70 metres into a mountain on its remote Svalbard archipelago, less than 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole. The site will have bombproof doors and at least two airlocks and will be remote-controlled from Sweden.
The seeds it houses will be stored in foil packages at –18 C and are expected to remain dormant but healthy, and immune to power failures, for thousands of years.
The loss of diversity
The plan is for the Svalbard vault to be a backup, not a replacement, for the approximately 1,400 other seed banks around the world, which are often in varying states of neglect. They can vary from large temperature-controlled gene banks in the U.S., which hold 10,000 or more different plant species, to an aging refrigerator in a remote agricultural station in central Africa.
According to Science News magazine, about 50 to 60 agricultural gene banks have been pillaged or destroyed in recent years because of strife in places like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq and Ethiopia.
But the bigger worry for many at the UN is not so much local disasters or even nuclear holocaust, it is that modern commercial agricultural practices, coupled with genetically modified crops in some cases, are substantially reducing plant diversity in the world.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops has been lost in the past century. Experts have pointed out that China, for example, once grew some 10,000 varieties of wheat in the 1950s; this is now down to only about 1,000.
That pattern is being repeated almost everywhere. The U.S., which has lost stunning amounts of plant diversity to development and single-minded commercial agriculture, was once home to something like 7,100 different varieties of apple a century ago; only about 300 continue to exist in any quantity, according to reports. The same applies to tomato varieties in the Andes, home of the tomato.
According to the World Conservation Union, a London-based group that publishes an annual Red List of endangered species, there are approximately 270,000 known species of plants in the world, and roughly 12 per cent or a staggering 34,000 species are tipping toward extinction within the next few decades.
Canada has about 95 plant species in the vulnerable-to-endangered category, and probably thousands more varieties of different species that have been lost. But the Svalbard seed vault is not designed for all plants — just the crop seeds that are the genetic legacy of humankind's 10,000-year experiment with cultivation.
What's more, the vault should be seen as more of a safety deposit box than an international bank; individual countries will continue to own the genetic and other rights to the seeds they deposit there for safekeeping, a legal right flowing from the 1993 biodiversity treaty that has, until now, stymied the creation of true international seed banks.
The roughly $51-million Global Crop Diversity Trust is being designed to help countries with limited means collect their seeds and donate them to Svalbard, which is the last stop for crop insurance.