Preserving seeds for the future

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The Global Seed Vault, the brainchild of scientist and conservationist Cary Fowler, was built nearly 150m into the side of a mountain in Svalbard, Norway, in 2008.

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It is often referred to as the ‘Doomsday Vault’ and is seen as humanity’s last hope after a world crisis.

Asked by Live Science (livescience.com) why the vault was built in Norway, Fowler said: “We had to situate the vault in a country that was respected and trusted globally, particularly in relation to the issue of biodiversity, which can have politically contentious aspects. Norway fits the bill in this regard.”

The country was also willing to provide all the funding needed to construct the vault, which at US$9 million (about R130 million) “wasn’t terribly expensive in the scheme of things,” says Fowler.

Svalbard is remote, geologically stable and naturally cold, eliminating the need for mechanical freezing equipment that could go wrong.

The seeds are sealed in three-ply foil packages and then sealed inside boxes. The boxes are placed on shelves inside the vault where temperature and moisture levels are closely monitored to ensure the seeds remain viable for as long as possible.

Crucial back-up
The seeds are not meant for distribution to farmers, but as a ‘back-up’ for other seed vaults. There are currently more than 1 700 of these worldwide, but all are vulnerable to war, equipment malfunctions, natural disasters and other problems. (Not long ago, for example, seeds from a vault in Aleppo, Syria, had to be moved to safety.)

The Global Seed Vault has the capacity to store 4,5 million varieties of crops, with each containing around 500 seeds (almost 2,5 billion seeds in total). It currently holds more than 860 000 seeds donated by almost every country in the world.

Limited access
The Global Seed Vault does not own the seeds within it. All seeds donated are still owned by those who donated them. This means that only the countries that donated the seeds can have access to them or allow them to be ‘borrowed’.

Greg Miles is a livestock farmer and internet marketer.