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AGRICULTURE: Deep-Freezing Crop Diversity as Safeguard for the Future

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jan 28 2008 (IPS) - Three tons of maize and wheat seeds are on their way to a deep-freeze vault built on an island in Norway, in the Arctic Circle, to be stored with 200,000 crop varieties from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built deep under the Arctic permafrost, will hold the biggest collection of plant germplasm in the world, and is designed to preserve the seeds for thousands of years.

"This is a truly amazing effort, but it&#39s worth it to protect an invaluable biological collection from any human or natural disaster," Rodomiro Ortiz, director of Resource Mobilisation at the Mexico-based International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), told IPS.

Ortiz said his organisation sent 48,000 wheat and 7,000 maize samples by ship to Norway last week.

The 166 crates that make up the shipment contain varieties that represent nearly 90 per cent of maize diversity in the Americas. Maize was first domesticated in Mexico around 8,000 years ago.

"What I can ensure you is that there is not one single seed of transgenic maize in that shipment," said the CIMMYT researcher, who added, however, that although genetically modified crops are controversial, "they can certainly be very beneficial in some places."

"The cornucopia of rice, wheat, beans, sorghum, sweet potatoes, lentils, chick peas and a host of other food, forage and agroforestry plants is to be safeguarded in the facility, which was created as a repository of last resort for humanity’s agricultural heritage," said the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The CGIAR, which was created in 1971 and links 15 public agricultural research centres and 8,500 researchers around the world, is providing the biological material for the vault.

The seeds that are on their way to Norway from all corners of the world will end up in the vault in the mountainside near the village of Longyearbyen, in Svalbard, a group of islands nearly 1,000 km north of mainland Norway.

The vault’s construction was funded by the Norwegian government, and its operating expenses will be financed by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent international organisation with headquarters in Rome.

Seed duplicates from the CGIAR included in the first shipment to the vault came from international research centres in Benin, Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines and Syria.

The CCIAR centres, including CIMMYT, maintain 600,000 varieties of plants in genebanks.

Ortiz said that seeds will continue to be shipped over the next few years to the vault, which is to open in late February.

U.S. filmmaker Oliver Stone has reportedly taken an interest in the process and according to the CIMMYT official will film a programme on the so-called "Doomsday Vault", as it has been dubbed by the press.

"The CGIAR collections are the ‘crown jewels’ of international agriculture," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is covering the costs of preparing, packing and shipping the seeds.

The collections "include the world’s largest and most diverse collections of rice, wheat, maize and beans. Many traditional landraces of these crops would have been lost had they not been collected and stored in the genebanks," added Fowler in a statement.

The vault can help restore agricultural systems in case of attack or destruction, "something that we are not exempt from," said Ortiz.

A genebank in Iraq, in the town of Abu Ghraib, was ransacked by looters after the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2003. But the seeds were not lost because there was a duplicate collection at the CGIAR centre in Syria.

The CGIAR also recalled Typhoon Xangsane, which seriously damaged the national rice genebank in the Philippines in 2006.

Ortiz underlined that the genebanks are not museums but places for the collection, storage and improvement of seeds with the aim of making them more productive and better adapted to different conditions – a treasure that will now be stored in Norway, far removed from any possible threat.

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