28th Oct 2016

Barroso to open 'Noah's Ark' for seeds

  • The Svalbard Global Seed Vault has been build to house samples of all the world's agricultural seeds (Photo: Global Crop Diversity Trust)

Next week will mark the official opening of what has been referred to as both the 'Doomsday Vault' and more optimisically as the 'Noah's Ark' for seeds.

On Tuesday (26 February) European Commission President Jose Barroso and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg are to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony opening a seed vault – a massive storehouse for food plant seeds that aims to preserve biodiversity in the face of global warming and natural disasters.

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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault has been built to store 4.5 million different agricultural seed samples from around the world at -18 degrees Celsius.

"The seed vault is the perfect place for keeping seeds safe for centuries," said Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust, which has helped establish the vault along with Norway and the Nordic Gene Bank.

"At these temperatures, seeds for important crops such as wheat, barley and peas can last for up to 10,000 years," he said.

The vault is hidden in a cave at the end of a 130-metre tunnel blasted into a frozen mountain near the Arctic town of Longyearbyen on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, which means 'cold coast'.

It is one of the most remote populated spots in the world, with as many polar bears as human beings estimated to live there. The local tourist guide advises visitors not just to always carry a gun when outside the village, but to know how to use it as well.

Standing the test

The seed house has been positioned so that neither a potential rise in sea level nor a melting of the permafrost would be considered a threat in the foreseeable future.

It even withstood a final unplanned test on Thursday (21 February), when the strongest earthquakes in Norwegian history hit the area. The research institute, NORSAR, measured the quake at 6.2 on the Richter Scale.

Seeds are already on their way to their Norwegian resting place from Colombia, Mexico, Canada, the Philippines, Syria, Nigeria, Pakistan, Kenya and many other countries.

"The shipment of the seeds is developing as planned," said Ola Westengen, operation manager of the seed vault.

Peru will be depositing several thousand numbers of potato seeds while some 30,000 samples of different beans, plus a number of grass species are en route from Colombia.

One of the biggest contributors will be the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. It is the oldest and largest international agricultural research institute in Asia and will be shipping 70,000 different varieties of rice from 120 different countries to the deposit.

From within Europe, seeds are coming from the Netherlands and Germany.

Preserving the world's biodiversity

Storing seeds from food plants is seen as an essential part of the work of preserving the world's biodiversity and ensuring food for the foreseeable future.

The number of plant varieties used during the last 30 years of intensification of agriculture has dramatically decreased.

More than 7000 plant species have historically been used in human diets, but fewer than 150 species are used in modern agriculture today.

In Mexico, only 20 percent of the corn types recorded in 1930 can now be found, according to the Norwegian Ministry of Agricultures and Food.

The seed vault is owned by the Norwegian government which has also financed the construction work, costing nearly €6.5 million (NOK 50 million).

All depositors will retain the rights over their seeds. Access to the seeds will not be given without consent from the depositors, and seeds will be returned to the depositors on request.

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