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A seedy birthday party in Svalbard

Preparing for global warming is chilly work.

Sylvi Lundgren, a 28-year-old biology student, found that out gathering seeds around Svalbard in blustery rainstorms last fall. From there the seeds were stored in a series of progressively colder environments before reaching their home for potentially thousands of years in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

For dignitaries visiting the mountainside excavation on its first anniversary Feb. 26 it's probably the only time -4C – the temperature of the outer chamber – felt, as one person said, "like being on the beach" compared to the -18C vault.

"I think you can tell speeches down here tend to be short," said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Visitors walked the 130 meters from the entrance to the outer chamber carrying plastic bins with some of the 90,000 seed samples, weighing a total of four tons, the vault received as a "birthday present." There are 1,400 agricultural gene banks in more than 100 countries, but Fowler said the Svalbard facility is the "largest and most important library of life in the world."

"I can honestly say this has the most diversity of any seed vault in the world, but more importantly this is the fail safe if all other seed vaults in the world fail," he said.

It's also an attention getter in the struggle to raise awareness about the threat climate change poses to the world's food supply and the debate about what preventative measures are appropriate, many at the celebration agreed.

"The notion of doomsday and the polar bear is dynamite," said Emile Frison, director general of Bioversity International, a global nonprofit research organization. "You can use the vault as a tool that speaks to people's hearts."

The vault's opening received extensive media coverage worldwide and the anniversary, while getting considerably less press, was still headline news on everything from the BBC to science journals. Not all the coverage has been positive, with critics arguing in interviews and articles that seed vaults offer false security against the continuing shrinking of viable agricultural land, with control in the hands of a relatively few entities willing to rely on questionable methods such as genetic modification to sustain crops.

Proponents argue seed vaults are an additional method to cope with climate change, not an attempt to discourage alternatives, and the number of seeds collected is insufficient to affect growers in specific areas.

The Svalbard vault now houses more than 20 million seeds from 400,000 unique samples and has room for more than 4 million additional samples from a U.S. backup collection that originally came from 151 countries.

A total of 25 nations and international institutions have deposited samples representing one-third of the world's most important food crop varieties. Depositors have exclusive access to the seeds they provide, with the Svalbard facility offering unique security against political and physical calamity.

"If there's a country that's more trusted than Norway I don't know what it is," Fowler said, adding "The seed vault is not a target. This is the safest storage facility in the world times a hundred."

The vault is high enough above sea level (130 meters) to remain dry even if all of Earth's ice melts, far enough into the mountain to withstand nuclear attack and the permafrost will keep the seeds frozen for years if power fails. The seeds are stored on shelves in three warehouse-like rooms and anyone entering from the outer chamber must pass through an airlock that ensures the temperature remains constant.

"There's no reason this facility shouldn't be here 5,000 years from now," Fowler said.

Using Svalbard for seed storage was originally considered in 1983, but it would be more than 20 years before actual planning began due to site surveys and international debate about patenting and access.

Construction on the $7 million facility started in May 2007 and was completed in November, followed by a cooling process to bring the vault to its designated temperature before its official opening in February 2008.

Lundgren, a university student in Bergen at the time, was among those in Longyearbyen for the opening after replying to a campus ad.

"They needed people to serve the celebrities and sing for them," she said.

She remained until June as part of a research program at the University of Svalbard and "after two weeks I decided this is so nice I have to be here longer." She returned in the fall to spend about two weeks collecting seeds with about a dozen other students, followed by lab work to package them and further research.

Lundgren said they hoped to collect 160 unique species, but ultimately settled for about 100. About 2,000 seeds from each species was required, which sometimes could be collected within a few square meters and other times required lengthy searches in multiple locations.

"I think the hardest to identify is the grass because there might be 20 different species of grass and you can only put one in a bag," she said.

There was an emphasis on "red list" species unique to Svalbard, including common varieties that have adapted to the local environment.

"We have a lot of the red list species, but we don't have them all," she said.

How many total seeds did she collect?

"I have no idea," Lundgren said. "I just know we were going crazy trying to count them because you have to have a certain number to store them in the vault."

Counting varieties required a microscope before they were sealed in foil packages and boxed. Lundgren said they were able to visit the vault when the seeds were deposited, but "we had to ask really nice" due to the extensive security precautions.

"I think it's weird that a tunnel in the ground could be carrying so much information about the world," she said. "It's a huge responsibility."

The most ornate donation at the anniversary celebration came from Japanese sculptor Mitsuaki Tanabe, presenting a spear-like creation called "The Seed-2009" in the outer chamber. The 1.5-meter, 7-kilogram sculpture is made of stainless steel and filled with wild rice seeds. Tanabe, speaking through a translator, said he has been an advocate of seed conservation since 1992 after discovering the threat to tropical habits.

"The biggest surprise is when I found out the varieties disappearing," he said. "That is what led me to advocate in cooperation with other cultures."

Not all cultures are in a cooperating mood, however. A report harshly critical of seed vaults was released on the day the Svalbard vault opened by GRAIN, an international non-governmental organization which, according to its Web site, "promotes the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people's control over genetic resources and local knowledge."

"The Vault and ex situ collections in general (and especially the institutions involved in the management of these collections) are enmeshed in a current global context where a handful of corporations have come to dominate plant breeding and to aggressively use patents and other mechanisms to monopolise(cq) access to and control over seeds," the organization wrote in an summary of their arguments. "In such a context, even when intentions are completely honourable, issues relating to access and control of materials held by any genebank are extremely important and unavoidable, and must be thoroughly addressed."

The report and a rebuttal by Norway's minister of environment are at www.grain.org/articles/?id=36.

There was considerable debate about how to prepare for climate change during a three-day conference in Longyearbyen that included the anniversary celebration, but none in attendance expressed disagreement the seed vault will play a crucial role.

"We don't know when, we don't know where, but let us not forget that each seed we store inside that vault has the ability to do just that, to save the world," said Lars Peder Brekk, Norway's minster of agriculture and food.


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