Inside the Svalbard Seed Vault



Inside the Frozen Seed Bank That Will Save Us from Dietary Doomsday

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"Seeds of Time" Trailer from Hungry, Inc. on Vimeo.

For more on the Svaldbard seed vault, catch the new documentary Seeds of Time, out May 22 at Cinema Village in New York City and May 29 at Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Los Angeles (other markets to come).

At 78 degrees north latitude, Svalbard, Norway is about as close to the north pole as it gets, and as far north as you can fly on a regularly scheduled flight. That remoteness might turn most people away, but if you're looking for a place to protect something from manmade and natural disasters, you've come to the right spot. Or at least this is the thinking behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which preserves 864,000 of the world's crop seeds in frozen tunnels 130 yards under a huge mountain in case—just in case—something catastrophic happens to our agricultural landscape.

Cooled to -18 degrees Celsius, Svalbad can preserve seeds for 50 to 20,000 years, depending on the variety. And while the stockpiled seeds might be useful if an asteroid strikes the earth or there is some worldwide nuclear war, the reality of the seed vault is a lot less sexy than doomsday. "That's not why we built it," says agriculturalist Cary Fowler, senior advisor and former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the international organization that created the seed vault. "We built it because we're losing [plant] diversity every day."

MORE:What's Better: Organic or Heirloom?

Losing diversity is a no small concern: Picture your life without almonds, spinach, onions, avocados, lettuce, peaches, asparagus, grapes, and yes, even (gasp!) kale. How could this happen? California is experiencing its worst drought in modern history—probably in the last 1,200 years, in fact—and it leads the US in the production of all those foods. Without seed diversity, a lot of crops wouldn't make it through climate change. And that's not just climate change in some extreme sense, but everyday changes in temperature and weather we experience but barely notice, says Fowler. "Plant diversity is so critical—it's the biological foundation of agriculture and we can't afford to play around with that," he says.

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So how does Svalbad work? Think of it like a bank safety deposit box: Seed banks from around the world deposit a duplicate copy of their seed collection into the Svalbad vault to preserve those varieties. The instant that seed bank loses its collection to war, natural disaster, fire, mismanagement, or even budget cuts, there's always a duplicate in the master vault way up in frozen Norway, preserving plant diversity and ensuring we humans have the food we like to eat should something go drastically wrong.

MORE:The 1-Second Way to Know If Your Seeds Are from Monsanto

If you're wondering how regional seed banks could ever be threatened, consider this: One of the major seed banks with a huge collection of wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, and other grains feeding the world's population is located in Aleppo, Syria. "At the time we built the seed vault, it was a very safe place—it's now a war zone." says Fowler. There are also important seed banks in Nigeria, Kenya, Peru, and Mexico. "One thing that we were quite cognizant of [when planning the seed vault] was, after 9/11, we don't know what a safe place is anymore."

When crops are faced with disease, plant breeders also look to seed banks to see if there's any variety of the plant, domesticated or wild, that's resistant to the disease. If they're lucky enough to find a match, they crossbreed the plants to create a new, disease-resistant variety.  

"Without plant breeding we wouldn't be eating tomatoes," says Fowler, referencing a time when domestic tomatoes were crossbred with their tough, wild counterparts to protect them from an outbreak of Fusarium wilt, a fungal disease that was threatening the future of tomato growing.

Right now, scientists are using the Svaldbard vault to search for a gene that can help protect wheat crops from UG99, a disease discovered in Uganda in 1999. Wind can spread the disease spores 100 miles in a single day, and UG99 is now harming crops in Yemen and Egypt, and making its way toward India, according to Fowler, and potentially the whole world. Without a solution, dips in the production of wheat would create a substantial blow to food security and possibly even national security in some cases, says Fowler.






Video: Exploring the Arctic's Global Seed Vault

Inside the Frozen Seed Bank That Will Save Us from Dietary Doomsday
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Date: 07.12.2018, 22:40 / Views: 73534