Arctic Vault Takes Shape for World Food Crops
Author: John Acher
Dynamited out of a mountainside on Spitsbergen island around
1,000 km (600 miles) from the North Pole, the store has been
called a doomsday vault or a Noah's Ark of the plant kingdom.
It is the brainchild of a soft-spoken academic from
Tennessee who is passionate about securing food for the masses,
and will back up seed stores around the world that are
vulnerable to loss through war or disaster.
A 20-metre (66-foot) long concrete entrance, still under
scaffolding, juts out of the snow-dusted mountain above the
coal-mining town of Longyearbyen.
It is reached by a switchback road rising to 120 metres
above sea level, offering spectacular views of the fjord below
and snow-capped Arctic mountains beyond.
Visitors descend through the mouth of a gently sloping
40-metre steel tube into the frosty cavern which smells of new
cement and is dotted with portable lamps as work progresses for
"There aren't going to be any better storage conditions than
what we will provide here," founder Cary Fowler told reporters
during a recent visit to the site in the Svalbard archipelago
off northern Norway. "This is a safety deposit box, like in a
bank, where you put your valuables."
Although this is one of the world's most northerly
settlements, an electric freezer will be used to keep the seeds
in the three-chambered concrete-lined vault at minus 18 degrees
Celsius (minus 0.4 Fahrenheit).
If the power fails, permafrost will still keep them frozen,
but not as deeply.
The project is at the heart of an effort by Fowler's
foundation, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, to safeguard
strains of 21 essential crops, such as wheat, barley and rice.
Rice alone exists in about 120,000 different varieties.
Ultimately, it is part of the world battle against hunger,
as crop insecurity mainly hurts poor nations.
"Crops important to the poorest of the poor have really been
neglected," said Roy Steiner, an official at the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation, which has provided financial support.
"Millet and crops like cow pea receive so little attention."
Fowler calls such varieties "orphan crops" because they have
no one to take care of them.
DIVERSITY FOR EVOLUTION
The aim is to preserve genetic diversity, needed by plant
breeders in the future to produce varieties able to adapt to
challenges like climate change.
Crops consist of numerous species, some as different from
each other as a "Dachshund from a Great Dane", Fowler said.
If such a store had existed 10 years ago, he said, the seeds
would have been needed about once a year as seed collections
have been wiped out -- for instance by a typhoon in the
Philippines and war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I'm sorry to say we will be using it a lot," Fowler said.
Eventually, the vault will have capacity for around 4.5
million bar-coded seed samples and it hopes in its first year to
collect half a million.
Not all seeds can be stored by freezing. Banana, the world's
fourth or fifth most valuable crop, is one example.
"The longest viability under these conditions would be that
of sorghum -- about 19,500 years," Fowler said. Other varieties
will need to be replaced more frequently.
"We're trying to capture the diversity not just between
different species but within different species -- that's the
basis for evolution," said Fowler, an official of the UN Food
and Agriculture Organisation but his own boss at the Trust.
"Extinction happens when a species loses the ability to
Norway is contributing some 50 million crowns (US$8.6 million)
to build the cavern, a sum which Development Aid Minister Erik
Solheim said was a pittance for what is gained.
"I consider it a development issue ... Poor African
countries have fewer resources to protect their genetic heritage
than rich co