Svalbard
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The attic of the planet for a post-apocalyptic world

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Ten years ago to the day, on February 26, 2008, ...the giant attic of the planet was inaugurated. Situated in Svalbard, in northern Norway, in an icy landscape, the building seems to have come straight from a distant planet. A freezer of extraordinary proportions, capable of storing all the world's seeds. A gigantic security granary, buried inside a mountain on the Arctic islands, to cope with the worst-case disaster scenarios. A radical response should war or global warming threaten the plants on which humans depend for food and survival.
 

Awhen farmers have been growing them for several millennia, the emphasis on protecting crop diversity ex situ is historically linked to Nikolai Vavilov, founder of one of the first gene banks in Russia in 1921. With the aim of ending famines, the botanist travelled through more than sixty countries, collecting farmers' testimonies and collecting seeds, keeping in mind their potential for resistance in a changing world.
The numerous gene bank memberships that have resulted have made it possible to grow crop varieties better suited to food production, such as those resistant to rust diseases that can decimate whole crops of wheat and maize. They have also led to the production of rice varieties that can withstand saline soils, making highly domesticated species even more resilient and contributing to innovations needed to cope with climate change, such as faster maturation and improved drought tolerance.
 
It was the adoption of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 2001 that gave the Norwegian government the impetus to launch the Seed Reserve. That of the Svalbard serves as the giant attic of the planet. A veritable "vault" located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, 130 metres underground. The purpose of this structure is to store seeds of the world's food crops, to ensure their survival in the event of a natural disaster. This reserve houses all seeds, both those found in agriculture (fruit, vegetables), horticulture (flowers, plants) and forestry (trees, forest, wood). The aim is to store these vital resources in order to preserve genetic diversity.
 
Preciously guarded under cover, under the permafrost, these seeds can be stored for at least 200 years, even in the event of a power failure. Since the structure's creation in 2008, gene banks around the world have deposited nearly a thousand samples from 4,000 different species, including wheat, barley and potatoes. More than 120,000 germs have been found in rice alone.
 
And this reserve has already proved its usefulness, since by the end of 2015, some Syrian researchers decided to withdraw their previously made deposits to rebuild a war-torn seed bank. The samples were sent through Morocco and Lebanon, and no state is excluded, not even North Korea. Geopolitical considerations are by no means a condition for coming to deposit samples. « Of course, a lot of precautions are taken, extreme care is taken to preserve the seeds. "says Brian Lainoff, spokesman for The Crop Trust, " but it also shows the global nature of the project. When you're here, politics doesn't matter, what matters is saving seeds... ".
 
The reserve was established by the Norwegian Government and the organization Crop Trust. It is open to the outside world to make deposits three to four times a year. New seeds arrive regularly from all over the world.
 
Real giant safe, doors locked by codes guarantee the security of this huge attic. The construction has been designed according to the most modern anti-seismic standards to protect billions of seeds and more than 4.5 million samples that can be stored there in perfect security.
 

Guided tour...

 
It is close to the North Pole (1120 km away), in the Arctic Ocean, that the reserve was built:
Svalbard is an archipelago in Norway whose climatic and geological conditions are ideal for seed saving.
 
A place chosen for the very low humidity of its atmosphere
 
Buried under the permafrost, this attic can remain frozen for more than two centuries, even in the absence of electrical energy.
 
This repository stores seeds from more than 60 institutions from almost every country in the world, collected from more than 1,500 global gene banks.
s that store seed samples of all crops native to the region in which they are located.
 
Svalbard has become the secure safe of all the seed banks in the world.
 
Robert Ziegler, Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines, prepares rice seed for Svalbard.
 
Seed samples are sent to Svalbard in secure containers, which are X-rayed to ensure that they contain nothing but seed.
 
To get into the attic, you have to go through five heavily armored doors that are heavily secured.
 
The interior temperature is maintained at minus 18 degrees Celsius, cold enough to keep the sealed seeds viable for thousands of years.
 
There is enough space in the three vaults of the attic to house billions of seeds and 4.5 million plant samples.
 

In nature too

While emphasis on protection through gene banks is essential, many plant genetic resources needed to build sustainable food systems can be found on the farm, including primitive varieties and breeds grown by farmers, as well as wild relatives in the wild.

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Take sunflower, for example, the plant is native to North America where samples of 53 wild sunflower-like species have been collected and stored. The high oil content varieties were first developed in Russia after a series of genetic quirks, carried out by a French scientist in a sunflower meadow, led to a series of improvements. Today, sunflowers are grown in more than 70 countries, with annual revenues of $20 billion.
 
Wild plants, especially edible ones, are increasingly threatened and require more efforts to ensure their protection and use. These plants are rarely included in intensive crop improvement programmes. Yet experts know that they have interesting characteristics that can work wonders on crops.
 
That's why researchers are scouring Central Asia in search of apple varieties, going to Papua New Guinea for its sugar cane, and were delighted to discover a wild banana in Southeast Asia that could help them better resist the deadly fungus that is currently decimating the popular Cavendish banana.
 
Researchers have recently uncovered information on the genetic history of wild relatives of chickpeas, suggesting a promising future for this popular legume whose efforts to improve it have been hampered by a severe lack of genetic diversity.
 
Many local and important food crops are grown in several regions of the world facing rapid change and high levels of food insecurity. To help countries protect species essential to their food supply in their own natural habitats - where they can continue to develop important traits useful in adapting to climate change - FAO recently published Voluntary Guidelines for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Wild Species and Wild Food Plants.
 
"Wildlife relatives have saved our lives many times and may well become central elements of the climate change kit."said Chikelu Mba, a plant geneticist and head of FAO's Seeds and Genetic Resources Team. Establishing protected areas is the first step. "Many countries have them and it is probably possible to combine conservation of wild relatives with nature conservation," Mba said. «But not many people really know what that entails" he added.
 
Conservation efforts need to be intensified, as climate change, urbanization and the changing nature of land use all pose imminent threats to the survival of many of these little-known species.

Sources : euronews, techinsiderFAO
 

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