Safe Deposit Box
Anyone who stores precious files on a computer knows the mantra for avoiding catastrophe: backup, backup, backup.
That’s the idea behind the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, where 750,000 unique crop samples sit frozen and buried in a permafrost bunker deep in Arctic Norway in case of disaster.
The facility was built in 2008 to serve as a safeguard for other seed collections around the world. Now, less than a decade later, one of the facility’s clients is already making a withdrawal.
In 2012, scientists at a seed collection in Allepo, Syria were forced to flee to Beirut to escape escalating violence.
But with ancient crop varieties hanging in the balance, the scientists at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) risked their lives to return to the facility.
Despite fierce fighting over territory around the gene bank, staff members returned again and again to fuel generators, mail samples to farms and labs, and rescue seeds to be saved in Norway and other seed banks.
Earlier this year, they won a Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize – the Nobel Prize of plant breeders – for their efforts.
What they couldn’t do is regrow seed stocks.
“These day-to-day tasks were becoming incredibly difficult in the atmosphere in Syria,” said Brian Lainoff, a spokesperson for Crop Trust, the company that operates the vault in Norway. “So they requested that the seeds that they had deposited to the seed vaults, about 116,000 samples, be sent to Morocco and Lebanon to be regrown so they could reestablish those collections in those countries.”
Lainoff said ICARDA has the most important collection of barley varieties in the world.
It also focuses on wheat, lentils, faba beans and “grass pea,” a crop that can be toxic if eaten in large amounts.
Researchers are using those seed stocks to make the durable, nutrient-packed grass pea less toxic. The preserved varieties could hold the keys to life-saving foods of the future.
The bank in Aleppo held thousands of seeds that researchers could use to develop drought and heat resistant crops.
Lainoff said loss of seed diversity becomes more dire as water becomes scarce and global temperatures rise.
“Delays in that effort of crop improvement may not see disastrous results immediately, but could prove to be fatal years down the line.”
Climate scientists say that for every one degree of global temperature increase, crop yields will decrease by an average of 2 percent per decade. That figure is closer to 10 percent for foods like wheat and rice.