A conservationist cradles two vials of peas destined for deposit in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The remarkable facility set on a rugged Arctic island off Norway is the ultimate global safety net for food security. It's able to protect up to 2.25 billion seeds from even "doomsday" scenarios like asteroid impacts and nuclear war. But crop varieties are already vanishing at an astonishing pace for more mundane reasons, from shifting local weather patterns to disuse by farmers adopting new hybrids. The vault represents a chance to save as many as possible.

"I'd say doomsday is happening everyday for crop varieties," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which helps manage the facility. "Lots of people think that this vault is waiting for doomsday before we use it. But it's really a backup plan for seeds and crops. We are losing seed diversity every day and this is the insurance policy for that."

Even a seemingly simple crop, such as wheat, may have 200,000 different varieties. And each variety has a suite of individual traits that determine how it fares in high or low temperatures, during droughts, or against certain diseases or pests.

"Even conservative projections of changing climate now indicate that by mid-century huge areas of some countries, in Africa for example, will be experiencing climates that are unlike any that have existed since the beginning of agriculture in those countries," Fowler explained. "How will they become adapted to future climates? One way they can is by tapping into this rich storehouse of diversity and breeding new crops with traits that allow them to succeed in those climates. It's essential to future food security," Fowler said.

(Read more about seed banks around the world in National Geographic magazine.)


Vacuum Sealed

Behind air-locked doors the seeds in the Svalbard vault are preserved by low temperatures (minus 0.4F, -18C) and placed in vacuum-sealed packages inside sealed boxes to limit oxygen access and slow metabolic activity. In storage rooms at the end of a 410-foot (125-meter) tunnel into the mountain, temperatures won't exceed 26F (-3.5C) even without electric-driven cooling. "Essentially that room represents the options that agriculture will have going forward in the future," said Fowler. "They are pretty much represented in the collection here. By 2100 we may need to use crops with traits that we just don't use today. Those will come out of this room."


750,000 Crops

Carved deep into the Arctic permafrost of Norway's Svalbard Islands, and located on a mountain far above the highest historic sea levels, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault safeguards some 750,000 unique crop varieties, including 1,500 Peruvian potatoes, indigenous Pacific Island bananas made famous by painter Paul Gauguin, and barleys prized by modern craft brewers.

"When I walk into the seed vault and go into that cold room I think, 'Here are 750,000 crop varieties that are not going to become extinct,' '' said Fowler. "It's a remarkable thing, when you look at it, there is really no other program on Earth that can say the same thing about some other form of biodiversity," Fowler added. "Many of these crops are not grown in the real world anymore and they might be extremely valuable for adaptation to a changing climate."


Guarding the Seeds

An armed guard patrols the long entrance tunnel of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is carved into the permafrost on the remote Arctic island of Longyearbyen, Norway. The facility is guarded by people and advanced technology but it's also protected by its remote location. The Svalbard Islands are an Arctic Ocean archipelago located halfway between Norway's mainland and the North Pole, best known as a rugged wilderness of peaks, glaciers, and polar bears. During long, cold winters the temperatures here dip to minus 4F (-20C) to minus 22F (-30C) for extended periods of time—and feel even colder when windchills are taken into account.


Inaugurating the Vault

Crowds gathered on February 26, 2008, to inaugurate the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which was born of 2004's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The first box of seeds included rice varieties from 123 countries. Construction of the seed vault was financed by the Norwegian government. The Global Crop Diversity Trust helps guide management of seeds and finances much of the vault's day-to-day operation. Storage of seeds is provided to depositors free of charge.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that three-quarters of the world's crop biodiversity is no longer being planted in farmers' fields. When crops are consolidated they become more vulnerable to disease, pests, droughts, or other threats. The genetic diversity found in the vault provides a critical safety net.


Preparing Seeds

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is isolated in the Arctic, but it gathers contributions of vital crop and plant seeds from nations all over the world. Here in Ames, Iowa, a woman catalogs and packages local agricultural seeds for shipment and storage in the vault. Seeds in the vault are only to be accessed if the original collections from which they came are lost or destroyed. The vault functions like a safe deposit box in that depositors retain the rights to their seeds and could request their return at any time. The seed vault does not make seeds available to others without the express permission of the original depositors.


Saving Seeds in Iowa

While Svalbard's seed vault is the world's most comprehensive, many others exist, including Decorah, Iowa's Seed Savers Exchange, which is dedicated to heirloom varieties. The United Nations recognizes about 1,400 significant "gene bank" collections of seeds and plants, including national (U.S. and China) and international (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) facilities—but most of these lack long-term funding and none is remotely as safe and secure as the Svalbard vault.

"A lot of what you find in these seed banks are varieties that aren't grown in the real world anymore," Fowler said. "That means if a seed bank has deposited a copy in Svalbard, it's not an extinction event when there is a fire or a flood or a typhoon or a seed bank is caught in the middle of a war." Seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan have been destroyed in recent wars while others, like the national facility of the Philippines, have been ravaged by floods and fire.


Visiting the Vault

When officials and journalists gathered in the Arctic chill to open the seed vault in February 2008, the vault was home to some 268,000 distinct seed samples. Now that number is 750,000, gathered from all manner of farms and fields, around the globe, for perpetual safeguarding here at the top of the world.

In the event of catastrophe, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault could be the essential resource that allows nations or regions to rebuild lost agricultural productivity. But even under better scenarios, the dizzying variety of seeds within will likely be key to helping farmers successfully tailor their crops for success in a changing world.


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