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Ultimate seed-saving exercise: preserving mankind's treasure

In one of the most inhospitable climates on Earth, one of mankind's most important treasures will be stored — seed samples from every known crop variety.

In an Arctic mountain on an island near the North Pole, the cornerstone was recently laid for the “doomsday seed vault,” a Noah's ark of genetic material for the crops that have been the foundation of man's progress.

As polar bears prowled, heads of state from five Nordic countries and the Global Crop Diversity Trust launched the fail-safe seed storage project aimed at insuring the long-term survival of vital food crops.

It's part of a broad global strategy to protect critical seed collections from the tropics to the highest latitudes. It will eventually house seeds from every nation — seeds now scatted among some 1,400 gene banks on every continent except Antarctica.

“This facility will provide a practical means to re-establish crops obliterated by major disasters,” says Cary Fowler, the Trust's executive secretary and lead author of a just-released feasibility study for the seed vault. “Crop diversity is imperiled not just by cataclysmic events…but also by natural disasters, accidents, mismanagement, and short-sighted budget cuts.”

Trust officials note that many of the world's gene collections are in dire straits, threatening the survival of some unique crop varieties.

“Agriculture worldwide relies on these collections of crop species and their wild relatives,” Fowler notes. “They are vital to the development of new varieties, without which agriculture would grind to a halt.”

The vault will have a capacity of 3 million seed samples, which will remain frozen even should power to the facility fail.

Samples will be released only in the event that all other seed sources have been destroyed or exhausted.

The feasibility study concluded that under proper conditions, seeds for most major food crops could remain viable for hundreds of years, while key grains could survive for thousands of years.

In addition to supporting the seed vault, the Trust is developing conservation strategies for every major crop and every world region.

“Investing relatively modest sums, the Trust is fending off serious threats to food security,” Fowler says. These include wheat fungus or rust that is decimating yields in Africa and South Asia, potato blight that has occurred in Alaska and Bangladesh, and other crop threats.

Climate change is also adding to the challenges facing the world's farmers and to their reliance on crop diversity. Even now, plant breeders are trying to develop more drought-resistant varieties of several of these crops. Temperate region crops are also at risk, since many plant rusts thrive under conditions of high moisture and rainfall, including the new form of soybean rust that reached the southern U.S. in 2004.

“Today's reality is that the food supply and food security are global issues, with ramifications for every U.S. farmer, large or small, and every consumer,” Fowler says.

“Without crop diversity, we can't develop varieties able to resist current pests and diseases, let alone cope with dramatic changes in climate, water availability, and population growth already under way.”

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