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Plants have been the the subject of human-imposed genetic manipulation for over 10,000 years. Historically this orchestrated effort was accomplished by way of selective breeding, but more recently technology has allowed direct manipulation of the plants’ DNA. Each successive generation of genetically modified crops produces bigger yields, more appealing output, greater nutritional value, or greater resistance to disease than each generation before it, making a modern crop plant a far more efficient human-feeding machine than its humble progenitors.
As a way to protect this huge investment of time, effort, and money, special-purpose seedbanks have been established which house quantities of seeds for each important crop. In the event of a natural disaster, disease, or war which wipes out the crops, these banks offer a way to re-introduce lost plant lines by way of their seeds. It’s a great idea, but because the vaults must be under constant refrigeration over very long periods of time, the infrastructure is difficult to maintain and highly dependent on electricity. But Norway has an answer.
The Norwegian government plans to hollow out part of the island of Spitsbergen and build what amounts a bunker for the sole purpose of housing seeds. Spitsbergen is a mere 1000 kilometers from the North Pole, which will allow the vault to naturally maintain a low temperature due to the surrounding permafrost. Even in the event of a sharp temperature rise due to global warming, the interior of the facility should remain cold enough to preserve the seeds for decades without maintenance.
Once the facility is completed, all of the world’s seedbanks will be invited to add a portion of their inventory to the Spitsbergen vault for safekeeping. This “doomsday” hold is intended to house around two million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world’s crops. The vault will be built with one-meter-thick walls of reinforced concrete, and will be protected behind two airlocks and high-security blast-proof doors. Its location and design should allow it to withstand nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, and earthquakes… all without the need for electricity. The existing seedbanks will remain in operation, but Spitsbergen will offer a chance to rebuild the Earth’s agriculture even if all of the other seedbanks are compromised due to destruction or failure of the power grid.
As are many well-laid plans, the concept of this seed vault is pessimistic yet prudent. It would be a bleak future indeed if humanity must make use of the vault’s contents, but it’s nice to see plans afoot to preserve humankind’s efforts.