Norway:Global seed vault to guard genetic resources

28 Febbraio Feb 2008 0100 28 febbraio 2008

A remote island in the Artic circle will host more than 100 million seeds from more than 100 countries. The "doomsday vault" is hailed by some as a great service to humanity. But how safe are we re

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A remote island in the Artic circle will host more than 100 million seeds from more than 100 countries. The "doomsday vault" is hailed by some as a great service to humanity. But how safe are we re

On 26th February the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened on a remote island in the Arctic Circle, receiving the first shipments of what will be a collection of 100 million seeds from more than 100 countries. Unique varieties of the African and Asian food staples maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum as well as European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato are the first deposits in the icy vault.

At the opening ceremony, Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg unlocked the vault and, together with Nobel Peace Prize laureate environmentalist Wangari Maathai of Kenya, placed the first box of seeds inside.

"With climate change and other forces threatening the diversity of life that sustains our planet, Norway is proud to be playing a central role in creating a facility capable of protecting what are not just seeds, but the fundamental building blocks of human civilization," said Stoltenberg.

Maathai, founder of the African Green Belt Movement, said, "The significant public interest in the seed vault project indicates that collectively we are changing the way we think about environmental conservation. We now understand that along with international movements to save endangered species and the rainforests of the world, it is just as important for us to conserve the diversity of the world's crops for future generations."

Doomsday Vault
Built near the village of Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago, the vault received 676 boxes containing 10 metric tons of seeds of 268,000 distinct samples - each originating from a different farm or field.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, often called the Doomsday Vault, is funded and established by Norway as a service to the world. The vault is owned by the Norwegian government, which financed the construction work at a cost of nearly NOK 50 million (6.3 million euros).

Blasted deep into the frozen rock of an Arctic mountain, the collection stored in the vault could prove indispensable for restarting agricultural production at the regional or global level in the wake of a natural or human-caused disaster. Contingencies for climate change have been worked into the plan. Even in the worst-case scenarios of global warming, the vault rooms will remain naturally frozen for up to 200 years, according to the organizers.

A service to humanity
The Global Crop Diversity Trust is providing support for the ongoing operations of the seed vault, as well as organizing and funding the preparation and shipment of seeds from developing countries to the facility.

"Crop diversity will soon prove to be our most potent and indispensable resource for addressing climate change, water and energy supply constraints, and for meeting the food needs of a growing population," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

"The opening of the seed vault marks a historic turning point in safeguarding the world's crop diversity," said Fowler. "But about 50 percent of the unique diversity stored in seed banks still is endangered. We are in the midst of trying to rescue these varieties. Our success means we will guarantee the conservation and availability of these wildly diverse crops. Forever."

NordGen will manage the facility and maintain a public on-line database of samples stored in the seed vault, which has the capacity to house 4.5 million samples, about two billion seeds.
"The creation of the Arctic Seed Vault is "one of the most innovative and impressive acts in the service of humanity," Dr. Jacques Diouf said today.

Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, Diouf said, "The world's crop gene pool contained in seeds is essential for increasing crop productivity, mitigating environmental stress such as climate change, pests and diseases, and ensuring a genetic resource base for the future. Yet the crop diversity, contained in the world's seed collections is constantly under threat from natural and human-led disasters."

The Treaty
It was the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, an agreed international legal framework for conserving and accessing crop diversity, adopted by FAO member countries that facilitated the establishment of the Global Seed Vault.
The treaty has now been ratified by 116 countries to pave the way for the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources with fair and equitable sharing of benefits.

A false sense of security ?
But amidst the ceremonies and congratulations, not everyone is celebrating Svalbard.
First, there is the issue of security. On Thursday, Svalbard was at the center of the biggest earthquake in Norway's history, with a magnitude of 6.1. The shaking was felt at Longyearbyen.
The quake occurred even though the vault's feasibility study assured that "there is no volcanic or significant seismic activity" in the area.

The international nongovernmental organization GRAIN worries about another kind of insecurity. In a statement today, GRAIN said the vault, "gives a false sense of security in a world where the crop diversity present in the farmers' fields continues to be eroded and destroyed at an ever-increasing rate."

GRAIN promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity "based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge." The organization says the vault actually reduces people's control over seed resources.

"The deeper problem with the single focus on ex situ seed storage that the Svalbard Vault reinforces is that it is fundamentally unjust," GRAIN says. "It takes seeds of unique plant varieties away from the farmers and communities who originally created, selected, protected and shared those seeds and makes them inaccessible to them."

"To access the seeds, you have to be integrated into a whole institutional framework that most farmers on the planet simply don't even know about," GRAIN says, "Put simply, the whole ex situ strategy caters to the needs of scientists, not farmers."

"In addition, the system operates under the assumption that once the farmers' seeds enter a storage facility, they belong to someone else and negotiating intellectual property and other rights over them is the business of governments and the seed industry itself," says GRAIN.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR, which runs 10 global genebanks for the world's most widely used staple food crops, has set up a legal arrangement of "trusteeship" that it exercises over the farmers' seeds that it holds "on behalf of" the international community, under the auspices of the FAO.

But GRAIN objects that CGIAR "never asked the farmers whom they took the seeds from in the first place if this was okay and they left farmers totally out of the trusteeship equation."
The genebanks operated by CGIAR-supported centers were the scene of high-speed activity in recent weeks, as staff rushed to finish packing samples of more than 200,000 crop varieties for shipment to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

"Our ability to endow this facility with such an impressive array of diversity is a powerful testimony to the incredible work of scientists at our centers, who are so dedicated to ensuring the survival of the world's crop diversity," said Emile Frison, director general of Bioversity International, an international research organization that is part of CGIAR system.

GRAIN says that CGIAR is not only the primary depositor of seeds into the vault, but will also control access to the seed collection. Anyone seeking access to the seed repository will have to pass through four locked doors - the heavy steel entrance doors, a second door 115 meters down the tunnel and finally the two keyed air-locked doors. Keys are coded to allow access to different levels of the facility. Not all keys will unlock all doors. Motion detectors are set up around the site. Boxes of seeds inside the rooms are scanned before entering the seed vault.

Only depositors can access their own collections at Svalbard, or give permission for someone else to. The CGIAR centers will be the depositors for most of the seeds held in the vault, giving them almost exclusive control over access, GRAIN says.

In addition, developing countries that want to duplicate their collections in the vault would not be able to do so directly if those collections duplicate what the CGIAR has already deposited. So they will not have direct access to seeds in the vault that may have been collected from their country.

"This might not seem to pose many concerns right now because governments have different backup sources for seeds," says GRAIN, "but the context would be vastly different under any doomsday scenario where decisions would have to be taken over a critical, unique resource which suddenly only remains in Svalbard. For farmers there is pretty much no possibility for direct access to seeds in the vault."

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