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How Seed Banks, Vaults and Exchanges Are Saving Our Food From Disaster

Seeds provide the kind of security to agriculture-oriented people that gold provides to the money-minded.

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Had Svalbard been up and running before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the contents of its war-torn and looted national seed bank might have been backed up in Norway. The collection, which included rare strains of wheat, almonds and apricots, was lost in the chaos of the U.S. invasion and occupation.

Efforts to save Iraq's national seed bank during its U.S. invasion were more successful. The collection, which includes Mesopotamian strains of lentil, wheat and chickpea, was moved to Aleppo, Syria, where it now faces political instability all over again.

Svalbad has been nicknamed the "Doomsday Vault" because its location and construction were designed to withstand a variety of manmade and natural disasters. North enough to withstand rising temperatures, high enough to skirt tsunamis and rising sea levels, remote enough to survive a nuclear war, and deep enough in a mountain to withstand meteorites, bombs and tornadoes, Svalbard has as good a chance as anything on earth of surviving the big one.

Fears have been expressed by some in the seed community that the centralization of so many seeds will facilitate GMO takeover, biopiracy, or some other sort of greedy exploitation.

"We built a tunnel in a frozen mountain and put seeds in it," explains Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the Rome-based nonprofit that funded Svalbard's construction and now covers its operating costs. Fowler is patient but weary as he defends the accusations that Svalbard is the Trojan horse for a Monsanto gene-grab, or will otherwise bring about some kind of global doomsday of its own.

While comet and tomahawk missile strikes are, hopefully, unlikely to test the vault's defenses any time soon, there are, unfortunately, many smaller, regional doomsdays happening all the time. And that's where Svalbard can make a difference, Fowler says.

If a Svalbard depositor's primary collection is lost, a la Afghanistan, that depositor would have a back-up of that country's agricultural genetic hard-drive. And while the Afghan seed bank was not in Svalbard, and perished in the war, all was not lost. Nikolay Vavilov had made a trip there in 1918, and had gathered samples of fruit, nuts and wheat for his collection. A little more than 20 years later, as Vavilov languished in a Siberian prison, members of his staff died to save that collection. So far 111 seed varieties from the Vavilov Institute's collection have made it to Svalbard, with more on the way.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.

 
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