Global Policy Forum

Norway's 'Doomsday Vault' Holding Seeds of Survival in Case of Disaster Is Buried in Arctic

Daily Mail
February 25, 2008

A "Doomsday" seed vault opens this week in the Arctic to preserve crops in the face of climate change, war and natural disasters.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is intended as a back-up to the network of seed banks around the world which store, grow and replenish thousands of varieties of crops. At the vault's official opening tomorrow a quarter of a million samples - totalling around 10 million seeds - from virtually every country in the world will be carried deep into the mountain in Svalbard, to the north of mainland Norway. EU president Jose Manuel Barroso and Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai will be among those braving the -20C temperatures in the vault at the opening ceremony.

They will be joined by Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, who has overseen the vault's £4 million construction and who describes the diversity of crops currently in existence as the "most valuable natural resource on Earth". But it is a diversity that is being lost, either as a result of entire seed banks being wiped out by war, civil strife or natural disasters, or more prosaic problems of mismanagement or human error at the network of seed storage facilities around the world, he said. And with climate change looming, Dr Fowler warns variety will not only be threatened by warming temperatures but will become increasingly important in aiding agricultural adaptation to them. He said the world was facing a "perfect storm" of challenges ranging from climate change, declines in energy and water availability, development pressures and a burgeoning population. Humanity has positioned itself so that "to avoid real problems, everything has to go right," he warned. "Diversity is threatened by climate change. On the other hand we're going to have to be making some major changes in the nature of the crops we have in the fields, which is going to require diversity. "We should be thinking 'Do we have the resources to make this adaptation', and if we do, it will be found in the gene banks. "If ever there was a moment in history when conserving this diversity was worthwhile and yielded a great cost benefit ratio, it would be now," he said.

And that's what the doomsday vault, which grew out of discussions among the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, aims to do. Its construction was funded by the Norwegian Government and the UK, through the Department for International Development (DfiD), is the biggest country donor to the Trust which will administer the £75,000 a year running costs. International Development Minister Gareth Thomas said the seed vault could help ensure that the genetic diversity of the world's major food crops was not lost. "About 2.5 billion people in developing countries rely on agriculture for their livelihoods but challenges such as climate change mean that new crop varieties need to be developed. "Through the UK's support for the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the seed vault will help to achieve food security for the poor in developing countries," he said.

All that can be seen of the vault outside the mountain is a concrete wedge, inside which a 125m tunnel goes deep into the hillside, ending in three vaults with airlocked doors, keypad entry, stone and plastic-impregnated concrete walls. The air has been cooled to between -18C and -20C, but Norwegian meteorologists have calculated that without power, the vaults would still be below freezing 200 years from now under the worst climate change scenario. While the cold conditions mean peas could last for 2,000 years and sorghum 20,000 years, that is far longer than they would need to, Mr Fowler said. The point of the doomsday vault is not for the seeds to be discovered centuries from now, but for them to act as a safety copy for existing seed banks, which are more than just large freezers. They are constantly taking the seeds out, growing them and replenishing the stock - and will be resupplying the Svalbard vault as they do so. And with the doomsday vault building up its supply first from the largest and diverse collections, and then from the different varieties in smaller seed banks, it is hoped that the most valuable natural resource on Earth survives the threats now facing it.




FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.