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Swiss store seeds in Norway's Noah's Ark

The entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at sunrise Keystone

Norway has launched an international seed vault not far from the North Pole to protect crop seeds from being wiped out in wars or natural disasters.

This content was published on February 28, 2008 - 08:23

Switzerland is among the 100 countries that are sending their seed banks for safekeeping at the $10-million (SFr10.6 million) facility, deep inside an Arctic mountain in the remote archipelago of Svalbard.

"Biological diversity is under threat from the forces of nature... and from the actions of man," Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said at the opening ceremony on Tuesday.

"It's the Noah's Ark for securing biological diversity for future generations."

Dubbed a doomsday vault, the Svalbard International Seed Vault, just 1,000 kilometres from the North Pole, will serve as a back up for the other 1,400 seed banks around the world in case their deposits are hit by disasters, economic collapse, war or climate change.

For example, war wiped out seed banks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Angola, and one in the Philippines was flooded in the wake of a typhoon in 2006.

The vault is designed to house as many as 4.5 million seed samples from gene banks around the globe – twice the number that have so far been identified.

Svalbard is icy cold, but giant air conditioning units have chilled the 120-metre-deep vault further to 18 degrees below Celsius, a temperature at which many experts say seeds could last for 1,000 years. And even in the worst-case scenario of global warming and if mechanical refrigeration were to fail, officials said the air-locked vaults would stay frozen for 200 years.

"It's an isolated place that offers the essential stability for such a long-term project," Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust that is funding the operations of the vault, told swissinfo.

Built by the Norwegian government, it will operate like a bank box. Norway owns the bank, but the countries depositing seeds own the boxes, and can use them as needed free of charge.

Swiss contribution

Switzerland has followed the Svalbard project very closely and plans to send some 10,000 crop seed samples, mostly cereals such as wheat, spelt, barley, rye and maize, from the national seed bank in Changins, near Nyon in canton Vaud.

Geert Kleijer, head of the Swiss gene bank, said the Svalbard vault presented a "unique solution" as it was a very cost-effective way of gathering all duplications in one single gene bank.

"Every gene bank needs to have a secure conservation somewhere. We have very good facilities in Nyon, but in the event of fire or flooding there is always the risk that material might get lost," Kleijer told swissinfo.

The ultimate aim is to guarantee continuity through conservation so that if there is a problem in Changins, Switzerland can rebuild its stock with samples available in Svalbard.

"Genetic resources are the pillar of the world's food security and supplies, especially in developing countries. There's a real need for safe places where seeds can be stored securing," added Katharina Jenny, from the natural resources and environment department of the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley

Key facts

The Svalbard International Seed Vault, based on the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, will be able to store up to 4.5 million seed samples including:
100 to 140,000 different kinds of rice.
200,000 varieties of wheat;
80,000 varieties of maize;
14,000 varieties of vegetables;
4,000 varieties of apples;
and 3,000 varieties of potatoes.

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Swiss seed

The different varieties of seeds cultivated in Switzerland are conserved at the national seed bank at the Agroscope Changins-Wädenswil plant science research station in Changins, near Nyon in canton Vaud.

This collection has existed since 1900 and comprises some 10,000 different kinds of cereal, fruit and vegetable seeds. The national collection is complemented by others created by private individuals.

The aim of the national collection is twofold: to conserve local varieties that are neglected by farmers and to build up a reserve that could be used if needed.

The length of time seeds are conserved depends on their individual characteristics and varies from 50 years for wheat to 15 years for beans, peas and soya.

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