Seed Security: A Real Doomsday Vault

March 29, 2009 07:00 PM

Pam Smith, Farm Journal Crops & Issues Editor
Ever watch one of those James Bond 007 movies where scientists are clandestinely laboring in an isolated location on some super secret project that will impact the entire world? Oh yeah...the place is almost always located on frozen tundra.
Sure that's in the movies, but there really is such a facility that's been built to save endangered crop species. Two years ago, a group called the Global Crop Diversity Trust revealed that it was undertaking an effort to rescue ailing seed samples from 46 countries to be housed in a special global seed vault. The so-called "Doomsday Vault” is located upon an ice covered island in Norway—one of the last bits of land you'll find before ending up at the North Pole.

The group recently announced it is well on track to save 100,000 different varieties of food crops from 46 countries from extinction. The initiative is one of the biggest rescue efforts ever of any threatened biological species and by far the largest rescue of endangered domesticated crop varieties.
Tennessee native Cary Fowler is Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. "We are moving quickly to regenerate and preserve seed samples representing thousands of distinct varieties of critical food crops like rice, maize and wheat in 46 countries that were well on their way to total extinction,” says Fowler. "I think it is fair to say that without this effort, many of them would have been lost forever.”
Clues to answering some of our most troubling plant problems have come from unlikely geographies. In recent years, several genetic repositories have been threatened by war and economic collapse. In other countries, stresses like lack of refrigeration and inadequate funding put the science of seed collecting at risk.
The imperiled seeds targeted for rescue by this current effort are samples of staple crops stored in gene banks in Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and Central and South America. They include rare varieties of barley, wheat, rice, banana, plantain, potato, cassava, chickpea, maize, lentil, bean, sorghum, millet, coconut, breadfruit, cowpea and yam.
Fowler says the Trust already has agreements in place with 49 institutes in 46 countries to rescue some 53,000 of the 100,000 crop samples identified as endangered. Agreements for preserving the remaining varieties are expected to be completed soon.
While many of these threatened varieties may not be growing in your fields at this very moment, they could one day be critically important to the future of global food production. "Growing conditions and food demands change rapidly and breeders never know which variety stored in a crop gene bank somewhere in the world is going to be that proverbial needle in a haystack that will provide the critical trait that can literally make the difference between abundance and starvation,” Fowler says. "So while these seeds being saved represent crop varieties from the past, they could easily play a role in the crops of the future.”
The Trust identified seed samples at risk by consulting scientific experts and then asked individual crop gene banks maintaining those identified to regenerate the most threatened within their samples. Germination rates were a prime factor in determining which seeds needed to be regenerated.
Three samples of the regenerated seed were prepared—one remains in the gene bank that grew out the seed. Another is a safety duplicate and is sent to a gene bank meeting international standards for seed preservation. The third copy is sent to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway.
The frozen facility is built so that if power fails, it will remain frozen for another 25 years. The vault was built by the government of Norway. The main funding for the project is being provided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with additional support from the Grains Research and Development Corporation, an Australian farmers' organization.
Fowler says one benefit of the rescue initiative is that producing new seeds actually requires growing the plant. This provides an opportunity to gather and record information on the plant's appearance and performance that could help breeders and others determine whether the sample may be of use to them in their work.
"We're not preserving these samples to be museum pieces,” he says. "Even when we are regenerating a variety ostensibly to produce new seeds, breeders are looking at that plant for certain qualities, such as heat resistance, drought tolerance, weed or pest resistance, that could improve food production right now.”
The mission of the Trust is to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide.

For More Information
Global Crop Diversity Trust

You can email Pam Smith at


This article appeared in a recent issue of Farm Journal's Crop Technology Update eNewsletter. To sign up for a free subscription, click here.

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