Can seed banks save the world’s food crops?

Can seed banks save the world's food crops? Svalbard Global Seed Vault Entrance in the Arctic cold.

Deep within the Arctic Circle, in a concrete building which dominates the stark landscape, lies the future food needs of the world, scientists hope.

For inside the vault, located 1000 kms north of the Norwegian mainland, are stored the seed varieties of plants which could survive in changed conditions from expected climate change.

This is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault — an almost unfeasibly remote outpost engaged in the vital business of preserving humankind’s ability to put food on its plate.

The Global Seed Vault opened in 2008 after engineers spent a year drilling and blasting through the sandstone, siltstone and claystone of PlatÃ¥berget Mountain to create a system of subterranean chambers on the Advent Fjord’s southern flank that could store 4.5 million seeds. The $9 million (£6 million) construction costs were paid for by the Norwegian government, which also contributes a $150,000 annual grant. The trust — a UN-affiliated body funded privately and by donations from sovereign states (including the UK) — meets other costs and runs the vault,

“There is a passion and intensity in the work we are doing here, an almost religious fervour,” says executive director of the Trust, Cary Fowler. “Because we understand why preserving biodiversity is so vital.”

Fowler says the purpose of the seed bank is “to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide”. Or, more bluntly, to stop the world from starving as its crop varieties lose the ability to adapt to climate change.

“The work we are doing under here will save diversity that will otherwise become extinct,” he says. “That’s why it feels so good to walk into this vault. The seeds we store in here are not lost, and that will literally save millions of lives. The alternative is unimaginable — what do you get if you lose your biological foundation?”

The threat to food crops from climate change is alarming scientists. “At a recent conference I attended, forest geneticists were predicting that we have already moved seed zones [the altitude bands in which individual plant species thrive] up one zone in the past 50 years,” says Dave Ellis from the National Centre for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. “This is truly astonishing.”

The band shift shows that higher elevations are getting warmer, affecting which plants can grow there. The Seed Vault offers at least a backup option.

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Image by Global Crop Diversity Trust via Flickr

Authored by: Sean McInnes

Sean excelled in English through high school, so it was only natural he should edit the school newspaper in his final year. He would write up sports results for his local newspaper. Now he writes news stories for