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A doomsday vault, or Noah’s Ark of the plant kingdom: Norway deep-freeze protects crop seeds against future disaster

Posted by gmarkets on 2 October, 2007

In a cavern under a remote Arctic mountain, Norway would soon begin squirrelling away the world’s crop seeds in case of a man-made or natural disaster, wrote John Acher in The Advertiser (28/9/2007, p.19).

Gene bank: Carved out of a mountainside on Spitsbergen island, around 1000 kilometres from the North Pole, the store has been called a doomsday vault, or a Noah’s Ark of the plant kingdom. It was the brainchild of an academic from Tennessee and would back-up seed stores around the world that were vulnerable to loss through war or disaster. It was one of the largest and most ambitious of the 1,300 gene banks around the world, and was being constructed to withstand man-made as well as natural disasters.

Opens in February: A 20 metre long concrete entrance jutted out of the snow-dusted mountain above the coal-mining town of Longyearbyen. Visitors descended through the mouth of a gently sloping 40 metre steel tube into the frosty cavern, which smelled of new cement and was dotted with portable lamps as work progressed for February’s opening. “There aren’t going to be any better storage conditions than we will provide here,” said founder Cary Fowler during a recent visit to the site in the Svalbard archipelago, off northern Norway. “This is a safety deposit box, like in a bank, where you put your valuables.”

Helping world hunger: Although this was one of the world’s most northerly settlements, an electric freezer would be used to keep the seeds in the three-chambered, concrete-lined vault at -18C. If the power failed, permafrost would still keep them frozen, but not as deeply. The project was at the heart of an effort by Fowler’s foundation, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, to safeguard strains of 21 essential crops, such as wheat, barley and rice. Rice alone existed in about 120,000 different varieties. Ultimately, it was part of the world battle against hunger, as crop insecurity mainly hurts poor nations. The aim was to preserve genetic diversity, needed by plant breeders in the future to produce varieties able to adapt to challenges like climate change.

Need already exists: Crops consisted of numerous species, some as different from each other as a “Dachshund from a Great Dane”, Fowler said. If such a store had existed 10 years ago, he said, the seeds would have been needed about once a year as seed collections have been wiped out – for instance by a typhoon in the Philippines and the war in Iraq. The Gates Foundation, created by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, has given $35 million to the effort, including money for packaging seeds in their countries of origin and shipping them to the vault.

The Advertiser, 28/9/2007, p. 19

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