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Norway: the 'Doomsday' gene bank

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Deep in the bowels of an icy mountain on an island above the Arctic Circle between Norway and the North Pole lies a resource of vital importance for the future of humankind – one of 1,700 gene banks worldwide that are the guarantors of global biodiversity. An article by the Organic Consumers Association emphasises the vital role of gene banks.

The storage facility

The goal is to find and house a copy of every unique seed that exists in the gene banks across the world. Soon this vault will make room for its millionth variety. Tiny brown specks, from more than 930,000 varieties of food crops, are stored in the Global Seed Vault on Spitsbergen, part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. It is a facility holding the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity, in other words 13,000 years of agricultural history.

The Global Seed Vault has been dubbed the “doomsday” vault, which conjures up an image of a reserve of seeds for use in case of an apocalyptic event or a global catastrophe. But it is the much smaller, localized destruction and threats facing gene banks that the vault was designed to protect against. As Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, that manages the vault, point out, there are big and small doomsdays and genetic material is being lost all over the globe. Gene banks in Afghanistan and Iraq have been destroyed, along with them genetic material that wasn’t backed up in Svalbard.

It was precisely for its remoteness that Svalbard was chosen as the location of the vault. In here, the seeds are stored in vacuum-packed silver packets and test tubes in large boxes that are neatly stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves. They have very little monetary value, but the boxes potentially hold the keys to the future of global food security.

The seed collection

Over the past 50 years, agricultural practices have changed dramatically, with technological advances allowing large-scale crop production. But while crop yields have increased, biodiversity has decreased to the point that now only about 30 crops provide 95% of human food-energy needs. Only 10% of the rice varieties that China used in the 1950s are still used today, for example. The U.S. has lost over 90% of its fruit and vegetable varieties since the 1900s. This monoculture nature of agriculture leaves food supplies more susceptible to threats such as diseases and drought.

But the genetic diversity contained in the vault could provide the DNA traits needed to develop new strains for whatever challenges the world or a particular region will face in the future. One of the 200,000 varieties of rice within the vault could have the trait needed to adapt rice to higher temperatures, for example, or to find resistance to a new pest or disease. This is particularly important given the challenges of climate change.

But a lack of resources is probably the biggest threat facing the world’s gene banks. Woefully underfunded, many lack the resources to properly store or protect the seeds they hold. The Crop Trust is now raising money for an endowment fund to ensure that the world’s 1,700 gene-bank facilities can continue playing their vital role.

In an age of heightened geopolitical tensions and uncertainty, the Svalbard vault is an unusual and hopeful exercise in international cooperation for the good of the world. Any organization or country can send seeds to it, and there are no restrictions because of politics or the requirements of diplomacy. Preserving biodiversity is all that matters.



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