Huge seed bank breaks ground
100 nations' post-doomsday plan
The high-security vault, almost half the length of a football field, will be carved into a mountain on a remote island above the Arctic Circle. If the looming fences, motion detectors and steel air-lock doors are not disincentive enough for anyone hoping to breach the facility's concrete interior, the polar bears roaming outside should help.
The more than 100 nations that have collectively endorsed the vault's construction say it will be the most secure facility of its kind in the world. Given the stakes, they agree, nothing less would do.
Its precious contents? Seeds -- millions and millions of them -- from virtually every variety of food on the planet.
Crop seeds are the source of human sustenance, the product of 10,000 years of selective breeding dating from the dawn of agriculture. The "doomsday vault," as some have come to call it, is to be the ultimate backup in the event of a global catastrophe -- the go-to place after an asteroid hit or nuclear or biowarfare holocaust so that, difficult as those times would be, humankind would not have to start again from scratch.
Once just a dream, attractive only in comparison to the nightmare that would precede its use -- this planetary larder is about to become a reality. Today, on the barren Norwegian outpost of Svalbard, the prime ministers of five nations and a small throng of other officials are to lay the cornerstone for what will be, in effect, the Fort Knox of seeds, the Svalbard International Seed Vault.
"We will have the biological foundation for all of agriculture, which is really saying something," said Cary Fowler, executive secretary of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the international organization coordinating the vault's creation with the Norwegian government. "It is a stunning achievement, if you think about it, and it would be about as safe as human beings can make it."
Scientists estimate there are 2 million varieties of plants used for food and forage today. That includes an astonishing 100,000 varieties of rice, the major staple of the human diet, and more than 1,000 varieties of banana, a nutritious fruit of global importance.
Most of today's seed banks are designed to be working banks -- their contents available to breeders and researchers. That means they are inherently accessible and less than totally secure.
"Svalbard is meant to be the bank of last resort," said Pat Mooney, executive director of ETC Group, a Canadian civil society organization focused on food security. "It's the backup for the whole world."
The Norwegian government is paying for the facility's construction -- an estimated $3 million. The trust has established an endowment that so far has $50 million of the $260 million that will be needed to sustain operations without depleting its principal. Contributions have come from about a dozen countries as well as foundations, seed companies and others.