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February 17, 2009

Doomsday seed vault's stores are growing

The stores of seeds in a "doomsday" vault in the Norwegian Arctic are growing as researchers rush to preserve 100,000 crop varieties from potential extinction.

The imperiled seeds are going to be critical for protecting the global food supply against devastating crop losses as a result of climate change, said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. "These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation," Fowler said. "You can't imagine a solution to climate change without crop diversity."

That's because the crops currently being used by farmers will not be able to evolve quickly enough on their own to adjust to predicted drought, rising temperatures and new pests and diseases, he said.

One recent study found that corn yields in Africa will fall by 30 percent by 2030 unless heat-resistant varieties are developed, Fowler noted. "Evolution is in our control," he said in an interview. "It's in our seed bank. You take traits form different varieties and make new ones."

That process currently takes about 10 years. But Fowler said his organization is hoping to speed up the development of new varieties by cataloguing the genetic traits of the seeds that it stores.

Their gene bank -- dug into a mountainside near Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard islands in the far north of Norway -- will be made public to help spur research, which Fowler says is woefully inadequate.

"Six people in the world are breeding bananas. Ditto for yams, a major crop in Africa," Fowler said ahead of a presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Fowler said the Global Crop Diversity Trust has agreements with 49 institutes in 46 countries to rescue some 53,000 of the 100,000 crop samples identified as endangered.
Agreements for preserving the remaining varieties are expected to be completed soon. They include rare varieties of barley, wheat, rice, banana, plantain, potato, cassava, chickpea, maize, lentil, bean, sorghum, millet, coconut, breadfruit, cowpea and yam.

The varieties most at risk are being stored in poorly funded seed banks in Africa and Asia where varieties are being lost due to inadequate refrigeration and the destruction of the facilities as a result of civil strife and natural disasters.

Researchers do not know how many varieties of crops have already been lost. But the industrialization of farming has had a major impact on crop diversity. In 1903, US farmers planted 578 varieties of beans. By 1983 just 32 varieties remained in seedbanks.

"When you lose one of these samples you're losing something you can't find in a farmer's field," Fowler said. "We can't afford to lose this diversity when it's so easy and cheap to conserve it."


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