Monday, June 19, 2006

Seed Storage

The Washington Post this morning is touting an underground vault in the far north designed to safeguard agrocultural seeds. The vault is on the island of Svalbard, part of Norway, which is paying for construction costs.

Its precious contents? Seeds -- millions and millions of them -- from virtually every variety of food on the planet.

Cropseeds are the source of human sustenance, the product of 10,000 yearsof selective breeding dating to the dawn of agriculture. The "doomsdayvault," as some have come to call it, is to be the ultimate backup inthe event of a global catastrophe -- the go-to place after an asteroidhit or nuclear or biowarfare holocaust so that, difficult as thosetimes would be, humankind would not have to start again from scratch. ...

Scientists estimate there are 2 million varieties of plants used forfood and forage today. That includes an astonishing 100,000 varietiesof rice, the major staple of the human diet, and more than 1,000varieties of banana, a nutritious fruit of global importance.

Seedsfrom these crops, which can be smaller than poppy seeds and as large ascoconuts, are invaluable repositories of plant DNA. They are the rawmaterial that farmers and researchers rely on to develop moreproductive and nutritious plants that can cope with climate change, newdiseases or pests.

Of course, the usefulness of the seed bank would depend a great deal on the extent to which humans survived such a disaster. Or at the very least it would depend on the survival of people who know how to open the vault, and the survival of its contents.

Being as that may be, it certainly is in a picturesque location.

The design, described in a recently released feasibility study,bespeaks that Armageddon mentality. First, there is the location: Thestarkly beautiful and always frozen terrain of Svalbard is, to say theleast, off the beaten track. Home mostly to a small community ofscientists, coal miners and support staff, it is the northernmost placein the world with scheduled commercial air service.

Arctic foxes, reindeer and polar bears stroll the streets.

The planning and construction of this vault is one more reminder of the possibility of impending disaster. As if we needed any more....

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