“My job is the most important in the world” and pancho remains Åsmund Asdal when he talks about his work as “Crypt Keeper”. Not for less when its coordinator position makes you travel six times a year to some remote islands 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole, home to millions of seeds of more than five thousand plant species as a last resort of humanity: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Svalbard, a dependent archipelago of Norway just over two thousand inhabitants in the Arctic Circle, was the venue chosen a decade ago to house one of the most ambitious (and sensible) project that has taken humanity preserve plant foods world not to be lost and to continue investigating and cultivating them both.
In recent decades concerns about the sustainability of the planet to food level it has grown, and is one of the constant debates of FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization. In 2004 came into force the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, whose motives were worrying erosion of resources in the sector.
This treaty has as its main objective the “conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture” at a time when GM, pesticides and the like are vital for cultivation and lack of sustainability can collapse of agriculture.
So the result of this concern the foundation for building settled a large seed bank that harbored as much food as possible in order to preserve any crop under threat of extinction. As always, the intentions are good, but they often remain in the pan. Fortunately it was not proposed and soon after Norway host this bank.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Food of the Kingdom of Norway got down to work together with the Nordic Gene Resource Centre and the Global Crop Diversity Trust to mount the works and everything needed to create hurt the Svalbard Globale frøhvelv. Specifically around Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen, the main archipelago of Svalbard and inhabited by just over 2,000 inhabitants.
Why Norway and more specifically some islands “away from the hand of God”? Because it is far and cold. Two characteristics that seem to broadcast but these are fundamental in driving a project like this.
It is far: Being a remote island implies that something is tradesman the bulk of the population, for better and for worse. But the important thing is that is thousands of kilometers from any other bank or genetic seed bank, so if there is a disaster affecting such facilities not go that far. Moreover, since its launch has provided seeds Svalbard reinforcing banks and institutions affected by war or fire (as in the case of seed stocks of the Philippines affected by floods not long ago).
It’s cold: The layer of permafrost (permafrost that is established in a region) is suitable to host a project in which the cold is imperative for conservation. Cary Fowler, head of construction and one of the main heads of the project ensures that in case of power failure the refuge would take two centuries to warm up to a “worrying” temperature.
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Another feature is the fact that they are in a tectonically stable region, so the probabilities of earthquakes and other seismic events are low enough so that the risk of a disaster of this nature is virtually nil.
Little less than two years it took the Government of Norway in Svalbard and build stand on this dug complex, completely, in permafrost and rock. From the outside, it just looks a portal, but inside there are three tunnels, some offices for staff and three crypts inside which can reach conserve 4.5 million samples at -18° C.
“What is unique about the Refuge is the complexity and the fact that we find the most complete collection of plant genetic diversity in the world”
On 26 February 2008 finally opened the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, receiving its first seed packets. Since then blanket over eight hundred thousand samples, the typical content is half thousand seeds. Although some are much less populated, like those of some rare species of rice, thistles or beans, which barely reach half a dozen. In contrast, as you can imagine, what more is what most widely grown (especially in Asia): rice, millet, sorghum …
The Seed Vault works as a bank deposit: The facilities are yours but the deposited material is yours . This is a vital point when the “customers” of the bank are national / regional institutions dedicated to the preservation of own resources. So these institutions reach an agreement with Svalbard to have there duplicates, important data, as a requirement is to have deposited a sample of the same material in a gene bank and is suitable for cultivation (and that is currently growing).
In fact we could talk about that we have a backup of huge genetic material, estimated at two – thirds of all species in the world. This implies two things: First is the fact that Seed Vault function is only storage. It does not work with these seeds, just they keep towards preservation. And (second), depositors can ask the store the “backup” in case of loss of seeds so once recovered material to redeposit another sign in Svalbard.
The mission of this refuge seed is clear: preserve the biodiversity of crops. A biodiversity that has been lost for centuries, around 75% losses throughout history FAO estimates. Examples are rice, which had more than a hundred thousand varieties, or mismanagement apples, which have grown from thousands to just over a hundred.
So no wonder that when I talked to the Coordinator of the Global Seed Vault, this is displayed tremendously proud of his work, to the point that to organize various exhibitions call it “The most important room in the world”. In a world where food sustainability is on the brink of catastrophe, sensible projects like this are needed.