Seeds placed in Norwegian vault as agricultural 'insurance policy'

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

File:Svalbard vault mountain cutaway.jpg
Artist's conception of the vault.
Image: Global Crop Diversity Trust.
File:Svalbard Global Seed Vault main entrance 1.jpg
The entrance to the vault.
Image: Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a vault containing millions of seeds from all over the world, saw its first deposits on Tuesday. Located 800 kilometers from the North Pole on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the vault has been referred to by European Commission president José Manuel Barroso as a "frozen Garden of Eden". It is intended to preserve crop supplies and secure biological diversity in the event of a worldwide disaster.

"The opening of the seed vault marks a historic turning point in safeguarding the world’s crop diversity," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust which is in charge of collecting the seed samples. The Norwegian government, who owns the bank, built it at a cost of $9.1 million.

At the opening ceremony, 100 million seeds from 268,000 samples were placed inside the vault, where there is room for over 2 billion seeds. Each of the samples originated from a different farm or field, in order to best ensure biological diversity. These crop seeds included such staples as rice, potatoes, barley, lettuce, maize, sorghum, and wheat. No genetically modified crops were included. (Beyond politics they are generally sterile so of no use.)

Cquote1.svg It is very important for Africa to store seeds here because anything can happen to our national seed banks. Cquote2.svg

—Wangari Maathai

Constructed deep inside a mountain and protected by concrete walls, the "doomsday vault" is designed to withstand earthquakes, nuclear warfare, and floods resulting from global warming. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg called it an "insurance policy" against such threats.

With air-conditioned temperatures of -18 degrees Celsius, experts say the seeds could last for an entire millennium. Some crops will be able to last longer, like sorghum, which the Global Crop Diversity Trust says can last almost 20 millenniums. Even if the refrigeration system fails, the vaults are expected to stay frozen for 200 years.

The Prime Minister said, "With climate change and other forces threatening the diversity of life that sustains our planet, Norway is proud to be playing a central role in creating a facility capable of protecting what are not just seeds, but the fundamental building blocks of human civilization." Stoltenberg, along with Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai, made the first deposit of rice to the vault.

"It is very important for Africa to store seeds here because anything can happen to our national seed banks," Maathai said. The vault will operate as a bank, allowing countries to use their deposited seeds free of charge. It will also serve as a backup to the thousands of other seed banks around the world.

"Crop diversity will soon prove to be our most potent and indispensable resource for addressing climate change, water and energy supply constraints and for meeting the food needs of a growing population," Cary Fowler said.


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