The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened today with the beginning shipments of 100 million seeds that originated in over 100 countries. The seeds represent everything from food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato. The vault, located on a remote island in the Arctic Circle, will be home to the most comprehensive and diverse collection of food crop seeds being held anywhere in the world.
The structure itself is an ice-bound fortress built with a tunnel that goes deep into the side of a mountain. During the winter, Arctic aire -10°C to -20°C will be drawn into the vault. The surrounding rock will naturally keep the desired deep freeze, and during the summer refrigeration equipment will be used.
The unique structure is its own failsafe, in the event of equipment failure temperatures in the vault take months to warm up to a maximim of -3.5°C. The inside of the seed storage vault is lined with insulated panels as well. Electronic transmitters linked to a satellite system monitor temperature, and send this information back to the Longyearbyen and at the Nordic Gene Bank, where staff will be managing the Seed Vault.
Additional security measures, besides the extreme cold and remote location, include motion detectors and in the event of that failing, there is also the native polar bear population.
(More on the importance of preserving seed diversity after the jump).
Why go to these extremes, literally?
Given that we have lost nearly 75 percent of our food crop diversity since 1900, the vault is designed to help preserve what’s left for a future that may hold significant climate change, change that would endanger the remaining diversity of plant species. This diversity represents a valuable and irreplaceable source of plant genetics that we may have to rely on in order to insure we can restart regional or even larger-scale agricultures in the event of a man-made or natural disaster.
Diversity of species may also hold the key for sustainable agriculture practices. Preserving species that are resistant to pests and diseases can reduce the need for spraying crops with harmful pesticides. Some species may compete with weeds more efficiently, reducing the need for applying herbicides — and important resource as more herbicide-resistant strains of weeds develop with the use of GMO crops. Drought-resistant plants can help save water and lives in the event of temperature shifts and changing weather patterns.
The project depends on international cooperation (and donations) so it is not a surprise that one threat to diversity is not mentioned — cross-pollination from GMO crops. Let’s hope the polar bears stick around to keep a close watch.