Guest Article #13

Frozen seeds - safeguarding global food supplies

World population grows and, thus, the demand for food. At the same time, climate change poses a threat to food supplies, particularly in poorer parts of the world. Subsistence crops are vulnerable to, amongst other things, desertification, temperature increases, changes in rainfall patterns and flooding, i.e. phenomena that are expected to become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change.

Through the proper conservation and utilization of genetic material the world will be better prepared to adjust food production to new climate conditions. With the help of genetic diversity we can develop new varieties of crops that are able to withstand more extreme climate conditions.

It is primarily the responsibility of the developed world to combat threats posed by our changing climate. The Nordic countries have put in place a range of measures to tackle the situation, including the creation of a global seed bank and efforts to promote similar gene banks in Africa and Central Asia. One key Nordic objective is to safeguard global food supplies through the conservation and sustainable utilisation of genetic resources in agriculture.

The Nordic countries benefit from one of the most comprehensive systems of regional partnership anywhere in the world. The Nordic Council of Ministers serves as the official body for intergovernmental cooperation and the Nordic Council as the official body for inter-parliamentary cooperation. The initial focus was on integration, but Nordic cooperation has become increasingly outward-looking in the age of globalisation, especially on genetic resources, a field in which NordGen (the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre) takes the practical lead in a well-established partnership.

NordGen manages the Global Seed Vault, located on the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic. Popularly known as ‘Noah's Ark for seeds,' this unique facility is capable of storing up to 4.5 million samples. Its purpose is to safeguard the world's seeds and food supplies in the event of natural disasters, war or other threats.

The huge storage capacity makes it possible to store seeds from almost all the crops of the world. The three chambers extend deep into the bedrock, offering optimal conditions – the permafrost guarantees that the seeds will remain frozen even during a power cut. The vault is owned by Norway, but operated under a tripartite agreement among Norway, the international Global Crop Diversity Trust and NordGen.

Global interest has been massive, and seed samples from over 100 countries in Africa, Asia and South America have already been sent to Svalbard. It has also received samples from FAO's International Agricultural Research Centres, which house some of the largest and most important seed collections in the world. One key aim has been to involve developing countries where vulnerability to climate change impacts and extreme weather events, as well as political instability may threaten biological diversity.

In addition, the Nordic Region plays an active role in the development of gene banks in Africa and Asia.

So why is it so important to conserve our genetic resources and use them in a sustainable fashion?

Firstly, the Svalbard vault in particular and gene-bank partnerships in general are ways of restoring important species lost due to events such as natural disasters, which are expected to increase in frequency and intensity due to climate change. Modern agriculture uses advanced plant varieties based on the most productive genetics. The original land races and wild forms produce lower yields, but their greater genetic variation contains a higher diversity and could be used to produce more climate-resilient crops. High-yielding modern crops are therefore vulnerable when a new disease arises.

The consequences for genetic diversity will be dire if we fail to preserve such valuable genetic resources, especially in an era of climate change. It is vital that both ancient and new species are conserved in secure environments, and this applies to the cultivated parts of our biodiversity as a whole – forests and farm animals as well as crops.

However, seed banks are not just a back-up in the event of disaster. One of the aims of our work in Africa, for example, is to encourage researchers, plant breeders and farmers to use them on a regular basis in order to adapt to the impacts of climate change, such as increased water salinity or drought.

The countries of the world will gather in New York in May for the 17th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. The agenda will include Africa, agriculture and desertification, and the Nordic countries will present their solutions for safeguarding global food supplies.

Superman built an Arctic fortress to protect his possessions. In the same way, we must protect and preserve our global genetic resources in order to promote global food security and help us on the road to a world free from the fear of famine.