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The 'Doomsday' seed vault is growing

By Cary Fowler - posted Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Days after celebrating its second anniversary, the Svalbard “Doomsday” Global Seed Vault last week received thousands of new seeds that will push its collection to more than half a million unique samples, making it the most diverse assemblage of crop diversity ever amassed anywhere in the world.

A wild bean from South America that could be critical for avoiding a crippling crop disease, a highly valuable strawberry species plucked by a collection team from the flanks of a volcano in Russia’s remote Kuril Islands, and a treasure trove of soybeans from the United States, some of which have been cultivated domestically for over a century, were among the crops that arrived from Columbia, Peru, Mexico and the US for storage deep in an Arctic mountain on a remote island in the Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago.

With these new deposits, the seed vault - built as a bulwark against any natural or manmade disaster that threatens global food production - now contains seeds of more than 500,000 varieties of the world’s food crops.


Reaching the half million mark brings mixed emotions, because while it shows that the vault at Svalbard is now the gold standard for diversity, it comes at a time when our agriculture systems are really sitting on a knife’s edge.

The array of crops protected in Svalbard and other seed banks around the world supported by the Global Crop Diversity Trust are the keys to climate change adaptation for the world’s farmers. For example, recent studies predict maize production in Africa could drop by a quarter or more in a mere 20 years, which would destabilise much of the continent and spark a global food crisis, unless breeders quickly develop new heat and drought resistant varieties. And with recent climate talks in Copenhagen ending in stalemate over measures to slow climate change, we must now mobilise efforts to adapt crops to higher temperatures.

If crops and agriculture don't adapt to climate change, neither will humanity. But to help farmers adapt, plant breeders need access to as much genetic diversity as possible to keep crops vigorous and productive in shifting climates.

The shipments arriving at the vault offer timely examples of why crop experts are so eager to bank as much diversity as possible. They include a wild bean species from Costa Rica - known by its Latin name costaricensis. The bean appears resistant to white mold, a disease that is a major threat to common domesticated bean varieties that feed millions of people in Central and South America.

The mold-resistant bean was sent to the vault as part of a collection from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia, one of the 15 centres supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) that together have contributed the most crop varieties to the vault.

“The mold-resistant bean is particularly important because it shows why we need to collect and conserve not just domestic crops but also their wild relatives,” said Daniel Debouck, Head of the Genetic Resources Unit at CIAT. “Plant breeders already are hard at work, exploring whether the wild bean can be crossed with domesticated bean varieties and thus avoid what could be a troubling interruption to food production.”


Overall, CIAT’s new shipment included 3,837 materials from 75 countries, mostly bean varieties but also seeds of important forage crops. Some of the forage varieties originated in South America but are now important to livestock in Africa, an example of the global sharing of crop diversity that has been underway for centuries.

Also coming into the vault are important crop varieties from the United States Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation. These include a wild strawberry species discovered after a three-day trek through a bear-infested wilderness to the Atsonupuri volcano, which is located on a remote chain of islands in the Russian territory of Sakhalin.

In addition, the Center conveyed a soybean collection that contains almost the entire lineage of soybeans developed in the US over the last century and hundreds of wild soybeans. Among the samples are an array of disease-resistant varieties and soybeans with genetic traits that could be especially important for dealing with the stresses of climate change.

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About the Author

Cary Fowler is the Executive Director of Global Crop Diversity Trust. Prior to joining the Trust as its Executive Director, Dr Cary Fowler was Professor and Director of Research in the Department for International Environment & Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He was also a Senior Advisor to the Director General of Bioversity International. In this latter role, he represented the Future Harvest Centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research in negotiations on the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources.

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