Seed vaults contain genetic diversity, which in the long run may be humanity’s most valuable resources.
Most of the world’s food supply depends on only a few kinds of plants: corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, soy, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes, yams and plantains. Most of these crops are grown from only a few varieties of the plant, so they are vulnerable if some pest threatens to destroy the crop.
Genetic diversity is extremely important because new versions of a crop (called “cultivars”) can be developed to be resistant to a pest or to changing climate. There’s little genetic diversity in the crops actually farmed, so where is genetic diversity going to come from?
The answer is that genetic diversity in all food crops has been looked for and saved, including for examples, hundreds of varieties of potatoes. This diversity is insurance that food crops can be modified by breeding new varieties from old genetic diversity. This diversity is saved in approximately 1,700 seed banks scattered around the world.
Scattering the genetic diversity around the world among many seedbanks is a deliberate strategy. The seedbanks, often called ‘seed vaults,’ are vulnerable to climate change, to political violence, to power failures (which would destroy frozen material), and to budget cuts.
The ultimate seedbank, also the world’s largest, is cut deeply into permafrost on Svalbard, a remote Arctic island, controlled by Norway. The Arctic permafrost keeps the huge number of samples permanently frozen. The Svalbard seed bank now has close to a million samples of seeds, and has a capacity of 4.5 million in total. Each sample is 500 seeds stored in open black boxes placed in the bank by the depository country, which retains sole access to the samples.
Any crop is vulnerable to mutations in pests, viruses or fungi that could quickly damage or destroy it. The Svalbard seed vault is insurance that the crops that feed humanity can be saved by manipulating the crop’s genetic diversity.
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