The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to protect the worlds seeds in the event of catastrophes such as plant disease or other threats, said Norways Minister of Agriculture and Food Terje Riis-Johansen.
The initiative, which was inaugurated yesterday at a meeting of the prime ministers of the five Nordic Nations, also aims to safeguard plant diversity, which is said to be under threat by modern agricultural practices, which require uniform crop plants of the same variety.
Because of this, gene banks around the world have played an important role in conserving seeds.
But, according to Riis-Johansen, gene banks can be affected by shutdowns, natural disasters, war or simply a lack of money.
"When genetic diversity is reduced it is irrevocable. We lose not only an important part of our cultural heritage and history, but we also reduce the ability of agriculture to meet new challenges relating to climate changes, population increase etc," he said.
"We are all interested in conserving biological diversity in agriculture, particularly crops that are of importance to the food supply. I think many countries will use the vault to improve their preparedness against plant diseases and other threats."
The seed vault, which will house up to three million different types of seeds, will be constructed inside the mountain close to Longyearbyen. Planning work started in the autumn of 2005 and is expected to continue throughout 2006.
Construction is due to begin in early 2007, and the facility is expected to be opened in September 2007.
According to Norways Ministry of Agriculture and Food (MAF), Svalbard is an ideal location for the seed bank because of its isolated location and permafrost that will ensure that the seeds are stored at freezing temperatures even if the refrigeration systems designed to maintain optimal temperature (-18o C) should fail.
The idea for a seed vault dates back to the 1980s. But only in 2001, after nearly 10 years of negotiations, did the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adopt the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.
The treaty establishes common rules for access to crop diversity and aims at conservation, sustainable utilization and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits of such resources.
"With this agreement in place, the idea of a seed bank on Svalbard resurfaced. In 2004, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, CGIAR, sent an enquiry to Norway, encouraging the government to restudy the initiative," said the MAF in a statement yesterday.
The administrative responsibility for operating the vault will be placed in the Nordic Gene Bank (NGB), under the Nordic Council of Ministers. NGB is responsible for conservation and documentation of crops and their wild relatives from all of the Nordic countries and today has a smaller security storage for seeds in a closed mine on Svalbard.
The new seed storage facility will remain in Norwegian control, but the seeds will not be Norwegian property- they will be returned in case the original samples of the seed are lost.
The MAF also said there are plans to establish an international council that will represent user interests and follow operations.