The vault opened a year ago and is designed to be a fail-safe back up for seed samples. Described as “crown jewels”, all the seeds stored there are duplicates of seeds stored elsewhere. Should disaster strike at one location, they will provide a priceless back up of genetic material.
At a conference to mark the anniversary of the vault, experts have gathered to discuss the outlook – and the prognosis is not good. A recent study in Science warned that, by the end of this century, average temperatures during growing seasons in many parts of the world could be higher than the hottest temperatures over the last 100 years.
If this happens, it will have severe impact on the availability of agricultural raw materials and food security. For instance, maize production in Southern Africa could be reduced by 30 per cent in 20 years time, as a result of global warming.
The scenario “means that the vital importance of crop diversity to our food supply, which inspired the creation of the seed vault, is neither remote nor theoretical, but immediate and real,” said David Battisti, a climate change expert at the University of Washington and a lead author on the Science study.
The Svalbard Seed Vault, located on the Norwegian archipelago, has amassed some 400,000 unique seed samples over the last year – 200 million seeds in total.
The collection is significantly bolstered today by the arrival of 90,000 new samples from crop collections in Ireland, Canada, Switzerland and the US, and agricultural research centres in Syria, Mexico and Colombia.
The new additions include 32 varieties of potatoes, oat, wheat, barley and native grasses.