Global rescue move under way to save 100,000 crop varieties


DOOMSDAY VAULT:A WORLDWIDE rescue operation is under way in a project that might some day help prevent starvation.

The international effort means up to 100,000 different crop varieties will be saved from possible extinction.

The goal is to prevent the permanent loss of these varieties, given their potential importance in ensuring plant biodiversity into the future, explained Dr Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Dr Fowler announced the initiative on Sunday during a session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago.

The meeting came to a close yesterday. The Trust is the body behind the “doomsday vault” an underground seed repository dug 120m into the side of a mountain on the Norwegian Spitzbergen island of Svalbard. It is 130m above sea level and so can’t be flooded by global warming and is capable of withstanding a nuclear explosion.

It holds duplicate supplies of the world’s national seed collections and when complete will have seeds for 1.2 to 1.3 million different crop varieties, Dr Fowler said.

Countries participating in the programme including Ireland, have assembled extensive duplicate seed collections to match those held at home. These are then to be delivered to the vault which will hold them in perpetuity at -18 degrees, something that should keep them safe for thousands of years, Dr Fowler said.

By the end of February there will be about 400,000 varieties in the vault.

Ireland’s seeds are expected to arrive either later this month or by April, Dr Fowler said.

The ongoing project is separate to this new initiative to rescue threatened seed collections in 46 countries, he continued.

Many countries struggle to maintain their seed banks to an international standard, leaving them at risk of partial or even total loss.

“There are a number of small seed banks around the world where the facilities are pretty poor. The seeds are basically dying in their packages,” he said.

“If we sit and wait we will have another wave of extinctions in agricultural biodiversity.”

Trust staff will visit 49 institutes where seeds are held, using funding provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

“The seeds are taken out and simply grown to harvest fresh new seed,” Dr Fowler said.

Once prepared for storage these new seeds will be divided into three parts, one to be held in the country of origin, another in a second country and a third in the Svalbard vault.

The supplying country retains full ownership of all of the seeds, Dr Fowler added. “It is like a safety deposit box in the bank.”

The seeds will be grown and collected from around the world and include key varieties such as bananas, beans, chickpeas, grains, maize, yams, rice and dozens of others, all essential food crops.

Not all of the varieties are being grown. Some are older varieties that have fallen out of favour, Dr Fowler said. Yet they represent genetic biodiversity that might be invaluable to some future plant breeder.

They all contain unique genes that could impart traits needed by a farmer faced by new environmental challenges thousands of years into the future.