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The Planet’s Ultimate Backup Plan: Svalbard

4 minute read
Bryan Walsh

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault turned one on Feb. 26, an anniversary it celebrated by receiving 90,000 new samples, or four tons, of seeds. Those are in addition to the more than 400,000 unique seed samples (more than 200 million individual seeds) that have been transferred to Svalbard since the $9 million facility opened last year. (See pictures of the seed vault.)

Svalbard is a repository for samples from national seed banks across the globe — almost every country in the world has one. Their purpose, of course, is to backup native plant varieties. If climate conditions change or a disease threatens crops currently in use, plant breeders can dip into seed banks to try to grow new crops. The seed diversity preserved in these banks can mean the difference between feast and famine. But the banks that contain our most diverse and important collections of seeds tend to be located in developing countries, where budgets are tight and conditions are less than stable. One disaster — like the invasion of Iraq, for example, in the aftermath of which rioters and looters destroyed a seed bank containing ancient varieties of wheat, lentils and chickpeas — and seeds can be lost forever, often before scientists even know what they have. “That’s like burning books before we open them,” says Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which operates the Svalbard vault together with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center in Sweden. (Luckily, a group of farsighted Iraqi scientists sent a sample of their seeds to an international seed bank in Syria, before Saddam Hussein’s defeat.)

Svalbard is the ultimate backup — or as Fowler calls it, the “Noah’s ark of seeds.” The vault was built on the far northern Norwegian island of Longyearbyen, where the Arctic cold helps keeps the seeds viable, in case the electricity that powers the vault’s cold storage should ever go. (Seeds can remain dormant but alive for centuries if they’re kept cool and dry.) The location isn’t an accident — should something truly horrific happen, from extreme climate change to nuclear war, remote Svalbard should remain protected, capable of rebooting global agriculture. “This is an insurance policy we know we need,” says Fowler. (See the 50 best inventions of 2008.)

But it’s not just a Plan B in case of global catastrophe — Fowler believes that as the climate warms, it will take a toll on agriculture. A recent study in Science warned that by the end of the century, the average temperatures during growing seasons could be higher than the most extreme heat of today. To keep growing food, we’ll need to make use of crop varieties that are better equipped to withstand heat and potentially droughts; breeders sifting through Svalbard’s unparalleled collection of seeds today may discover tomorrow’s crops. “This isn’t just a time capsule,” says Fowler. “This is a living institution, built to address individual catastrophes, not just global ones.”

The Svalbard vault is just one in a series of investments necessary to ensure that a warmer, more populous world will still be able to feed itself. Funding for global agricultural research has dwindled in recent years, in the wake of the great success of the Green Revolution of the 1950s and ’60s, which vastly increased global crop yields through intensive fertilizer use and irrigation. Bananas are one of the most important cash crops in the world, for example, yet Fowler notes that there are just six banana breeders on the planet.

Meanwhile the increase in annual crop yields has begun to slow in much of the world — this, before global warming has really taken hold — even as population continues to grow, especially in the countries that have least been able to feed themselves. Given that it takes years or decades to breed new crop varieties, Fowler says we need to begin preparing now for the agricultural challenges of the future, using Svalbard’s contents to build and breed new crops. “We’ve ignored the infrastructure of agriculture for too long,” he says. “It’s in our self-interest to fix this.” The Svalbard vault may be a last resort, but it should also be the start of new Green Revolution.

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