May 30, 2006

Arctic “Noah’s Ark” vault to protect world’s seeds

By Alister Doyle, Environment Correspondent

OSLO (Reuters) - A frozen "Noah's Ark" to safeguard the
world's crop seeds from cataclysms will be built on a remote
Arctic island off Norway, the Norwegian government said on

Construction of the Global Seed Vault, in a mountainside on
the island of Svalbard 1,000 km (600 miles) from the North
Pole, would start in June with completion due in September

"Norway will by this contribute to the global system for
ensuring the diversity of food plants. A Noah's Ark on Svalbard
if you will," Norwegian Agriculture and Food Minister Terje
Riis-Johansen said in a statement.

The doomsday vault would be built near Longyaerbyen,
Svalbard's main village, with space for three million seed
varieties. It would store seeds including rice, wheat, and
barley as well as fruits and vegetables.

It would be a remote Arctic back-up for scores of other
seed banks around the world, which may be more vulnerable to
risks ranging from nuclear war to mundane power failures.

"Gene banks can be affected by shutdowns, natural
disasters, wars or simply a lack of money," Riis-Johansen said.

Loss of genetic diversity would mean losing a part of
cultural heritage. "We also reduce the ability of agriculture
to meet new challenges relating to climate change, population
increase, and so on," he said.

The seeds would be stored at -18 Celsius (-0.40F). If the
power failed, the seeds would probably stay frozen.

"The temperature there is around -3C, -4C in the summer but
we believe that even if the freezers broke down a suitable
temperature would last for months," said Grethe Helene Evjen, a
senior adviser at the Agriculture Ministry.

"This will be primarily a duplicate storage for plant seeds
already stored elsewhere," she told Reuters. Seeds would remain
the property of nations making deposits.

Norway would provide 30 million Norwegian crowns ($4.94
million) to build the vault. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg
would mark the start of construction during a meeting of prime
ministers from the Nordic region on the island on June 19.

Norway has long talked of building the Arctic seed vault
without previously taking action. For about 15 years some
varieties of seed have been stored in a disused Svalbard mine
under a plan to see if they can germinate after 100 years.

Norway has worked with the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture
Organization on the plans. It would also get financial support
from the Global Crop Diversity Trust to help poor countries use
the storage.