Fort Knox for seeds aims to preserve world's crops

Guarded by motion-detector cameras, security fences and the odd polar bear, a huge cavern has been built in an island off northern Norway to help secure global crop diversity.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a veritable Fort Knox for seeds and aimed at safeguarding genetic heritage for future generations.

Seeds from maize, rice, wheat, beans, sorghum, cowpeas, soybeans and other crops are to be deposited in three chambers in the vault that can be accessed via a 100m-long tunnel blasted into solid rock in a mountainside.

The vault is located about 1km away from the airport serving Longyearbyen, the main settlement on Svalbard, an archipelago off northern Norway.

At 130m above sea level, the vault is believed to withstand even “the worst-case scenarios of rising sea levels” caused by global warming, Ola Westengen, coordinator of operations and management, said by telephone.

Norway has footed the 50-million-kroner ($9,3-million) bill for the vault to be inaugurated on Tuesday.

Among the dignitaries slated to attend the ceremony are Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg; Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission; 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of Kenya; and Jacques Diouf, Director General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Arctic temperatures, permafrost and stable geological conditions were decisive factors in the choice of Svalbard.

An earthquake on Thursday measuring 6,2 on the Richter scale in the Barents Sea about 140km south-east of Longyearbyen did not cause any damage to the vault, offering further proof that “we are on safe ground”, Westengen said.

The vault was built by Statsbygg, the Directorate of Public Construction and Property.

Asked about the vault’s estimated life-span, Westengen said: “It was built to last 200 years.” The constructor could not “guarantee” a longer period.

Gene banks would likely be needed “even longer than that”, Westengen said, referring to the need to secure samples of plants that people or animals eat to cope with future pests, drought or other threats.

Nordic countries and several African nations have for some years stored seeds in a disused coal mine on Svalbard, but it was regarded as a “safer” option to build a completely new structure, Westengen said.

The Nordic Gene Bank, created in 1979, stores about 30 000 varieties of seeds typical for the region.

The largest consignment due for the Svalbard vault was from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines that shipped 70 000 different varieties of rice from 120 different countries.

Seeds have also been sent from Mexico, which houses the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre; Syria; and Nigeria, where the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture is based, as well as Pakistan, Germany and Kenya.

“The seeds would be stored at -18 degrees Celsius,” Westengen said, adding that generators would lower the temperature. “Should the power fail, the permafrost of -4 degrees should keep temperatures below freezing.”

National and international gene banks are part of a network coordinated by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, and the seeds are stored in vacuum-sealed aluminium bags packed in special boxes.

The Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust has provided funds for the transport of the seeds.

The vault would likely be accessed only a few times a year, mainly to deposit new samples in the vault.—Sapa-dpa

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