LONGYEARBYEN, Norway (AFP) — A vault carved into the Arctic permafrost and filled with samples of the world's most important seeds will be inaugurated Tuesday, providing a Noah's Ark of food crops in the event of a global catastrophe.
Aimed at safeguarding biodiversity in the face of climate change, wars and other natural and man-made disasters, the new seed bank has the capacity to hold up to 4.5 million batches, or twice the number of crop varieties believed to exist in the world today, according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), which spearheaded the project.
With European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso looking on, Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg will inaugurate the vault by symbolically depositing a few grains of rice in one of its three spacious cold chambers.
Norway has assumed the entire six-million-euro (8.9-million-dollar) charge for building the vault in its Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, just some 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) from the North Pole.
There are currently more than 200,000 different varieties of rice and wheat in the world, but this diversity is rapidly disappearing due to pests and diseases, climate change and human activities.
Biodiversity is essential because it enables crops to adapt to new conditions, resist diseases, increase their nutritional value and become less dependant on water, according to GCDT.
Under tight security, duplicates of seed samples from 21 seed banks around the world will be stored in the new vault at a constant temperature of minus 18 degrees Celsius (minus 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit), and even if the freezer system fails the permafrost will ensure that temperatures never rise above minus 3.5 degrees Celsius.
Contributions from the other 1,300 seed banks worldwide are expected at a later date.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault will on Tuesday hold some 268,000 samples. They will remain the property of their countries of origin, which can claim them back if they should disappear from their natural environment.
Measuring twice the size of Belgium and counting just 2,300 inhabitants, the Svalbard archipelago, where ironically no crops grow, is considered the ideal location for the new vault due to its remote location far from civil strife.
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »