Inside Norway's ''Doomsday'' Seed Vault

eep in Norway's frozen Svalbard archipelago sits a high-tech facility that could save the world. If global catastrophes like asteroid impacts or disease pandemics were to strike, seeds stored in this first ever "doomsday" vault would ensure that humans could regrow the crops needed for survival.

But the vault can also save us from a more gradual disaster: Every day little-known crop varieties are going extinct.

These crops, researchers say, are the raw genetic materials needed for breeders to adapt the global food supply to survive climate change, water and energy shortages, and even shifts in food preferences.

(Related news: "Farming Claims Almost Half Earth's Land, New Maps Show" [December 9, 2005].)

"[Crop diversity] is quite a necessity if we want to continue to have wheat and rice and broccoli to put on the table," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, Italy.

The trust is the leading force behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a repository built by the Norwegian government to store backup copies of as many as three million different crop varieties. (See pictures of Svalbard and the new vault.)

The vault, carved into a mountainside on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, will open for storage in February 2008 (see a map of Norway).

"What it's going to do is put an end to extinction [of] agricultural crops," Fowler said.

"That's not really going to excite the person walking down the street today, but boy, for me, that's a profound statement."

Banks at Risk

The Svalbard project is a global version of a seed bank, a concept that has been around since the 1920s.

Currently about 1,400 seed banks are in operation worldwide, each serving as a genetic library for anywhere from a handful to several thousand different crop varieties. Unlike wild plants, domesticated crops have had their evolution partially controlled by humans to create plants that can better survive pests, droughts, and other conditions.

"Being able to meet these different kinds of needs … really requires that we have the genetic diversity that exists within the gene pool of our different crops," Fowler said.

For example, modern agriculture drains 70 percent of the world's available freshwater each year.

To help prevent conflict as water demands increase, scientists could use the diversity in seed banks to breed crop varieties that require less water to grow, Fowler said.

Many facilities hold the only known copies of particular—and potentially valuable—seeds, and local bank keepers must regularly replant and gather new seeds to ensure a fresh supply.

But the banks are vulnerable to mismanagement, equipment failures, budget cuts, severe weather, and sometimes the ravages of war.

If a seed bank is neglected, flooded, or bombed, the genetic diversity contained in the collection is lost.

The recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, destroyed some of those countries' seed banks, and a typhoon in 2006 wiped out a bank in the Philippines.

The Norway vault will collect samples from local banks in so-called black boxes. These packages will stay unopened in the Svalbard facility unless the need arises for a variety that is otherwise used up or wiped out.

Hot is the New Cold

David Battisti is an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle who studies the impact of climate change on food security.

The global nature of the Svalbard seed vault, he said, is helping to change the way local seed banks operate.

Instead of asking which seeds to collect and store to produce higher yields today, bank managers are beginning to ask which seeds will be valuable under different climate conditions in the future.

Climate models indicate that in most places around the world, the warmest temperature on record today will be colder than the coldest average temperature a hundred years from now, he noted.

"It could very well be you need to bring a whole different type of food to grow in [a] particular location," Battisti said.

Breeders will need to scour the world's banks for traits that can be introduced into crops to make them suitable for changes in local soils, day length, and precipitation patterns, for example.

"These are the kinds of questions that nobody was thinking about before climate change came along, and particularly before the Norway seed vault came along," Battisti said.

Wild Storage

Climate change is also expected to take a toll on wild plant species, noted Sharon Buckley, a spokesperson for the Royal Botanic Gardens' Millennium Seed Bank Project in the United Kingdom.

That bank is trying to collect seeds from the top 10 percent of the world's most threatened wild plants.

"Although they are not what we would call normal crop plants, a lot of these species are very important for people who live near them for use," Buckley said.

Some are used as a local food source, while others are harvested to provide shelter, clothing, or traditional artifacts.

For example, the African oak—a naturally termite-resistant species used for timber and to make West African drums known as djembes—has been on the decline and is now classified as "vulnerable" by the World Conservation Union.

Like the crop seeds headed for storage in Norway, the wild seeds in the U.K. are a backup for those stored in their countries of origin, available as replacements should disaster strike.

"Because of the very nature of the plants we're collecting, they do tend to be in the dry lands of the world right now," Buckley added, "because those are the areas that are going to be most affected by climate change."

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