Page last updated at 14:08 GMT, Thursday, 26 February 2009

More seeds for 'doomsday vault'

Entrance to the Svalbard seed vault (Image: Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust)
The remote, frozen landscape provides an ideal backdrop for the vault

Almost 90,000 food crop seed samples have arrived at the "doomsday vault" in the Arctic Circle, as part of its first anniversary celebrations.

The four-tonne shipment takes the number of seeds stored in the frozen repository to more than 20 million.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built 130m (426ft) inside a mountain, aims to protect the world's food crop species against natural and human disasters.

The 5m ($7m) facility took 12 months to build and opened in February 2008.

"The vault was opened last year to ensure that, one day, all of humanity's existing food crop varieties would be safely protected," explained Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT).

"It's amazing how far we have come towards accomplishing that goal."

The arrival of the latest consignment of seed samples means that the vault, deep inside a mountain on Norway's Svalbard archipelago, is now storing a third of the planet's most important food crop varieties.

Among the anniversary arrivals are 32 varieties of potatoes from Ireland's national gene banks.

It is thought the lack of diversity in Ireland's potato crops played a major part in the spread of blight through the nation's harvests in the mid-1800s, contributing to the Great Famine.

Diagram of the interior of the seed vault (Image: BBC)

The vault, operated by a partnership between the GCDT and the Norwegian government, stores duplicates of seeds held in national collections.

It acts as a fail-safe backup if the original collections are lost or damaged.

Tunnel leading to the stores inside the vault (Image: Mari Tefre/GCDT)
The permafrost helps maintain the vault's sub-zero temperatures

"We are especially proud to see such a large number of countries working quickly to provide samples from their collections for safekeeping in the vault," said Norway's Agriculture Minister Lars Peder Brekk.

"It shows that there are situations in the world today capable of transcending politics and inspiring a strong unity of purpose among a diverse community of nations."

As well as the consignment of seeds, experts on climate change and food production have gathered in Longyearbyen for a three-day anniversary conference.

They will examine how climate change threatens global food production, and how crop diversity will improve food security for people in regions that are going to be worst affected.

Frank Loy, an environment adviser to President Obama, said: "When we see research indicating that global warming could diminish maize production by 30% in southern Africa in only 20 years' time, it shows that crop diversity is needed to adapt agriculture to climate change right now."

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