1672710570 The Secrets of the Chamber at the End of the

The Secrets of the Chamber at the End of the World: Why Mankind’s Salvation Lies in Norway

The Secrets of the Chamber at the End of the

1,300 kilometers from the North Pole, on the island of Spitsbergen in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, underground and bombproof, lies what is known as the Chamber of the End of the World or Noah’s Ark of the Seeds. Officially called the World Seed Bank, it stores one million varieties of 6,000 species from all climate zones and continents. The goal: to ensure that people can continue to produce food in the event of a disaster.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), only 1,300 of the 6,300 species of livestock breeds cataloged over the past century have survived. For plant species, 75% have disappeared over the same period and two out of three are threatened with extinction. More than 400,000 species of vascular plants with roots, stems and leaves are cataloged on paper, of which only between 8,000 and 10,000 have been used for food production over the centuries. However, the basic food supply comes from about 200 seeds, and of that number only nine: sugarcane, corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, soybeans, palm trees, beetroot, and cassava account for two-thirds of the world’s food production.

This heavy reliance on a few species – also linked to some multinational groups – together with the progressive disappearance of the biodiversity supported by thousands of traditional species, encouraged concern in the 1980s by international organizations such as the FAO or the World Bank about the need to protect the availability of seeds to try to feed a world population that is 8,000 million today but is projected to be 10,000 million in 2050. In this scenario, the FAO promoted the establishment of a worldwide seed bank where all institutions on the planet, some 1,500, can store a backup copy of their strains and access them at any time. In this sense, the bank acts as a deposit vault.

José Esquinas, an agronomist and genetics expert, joined FAO in 1978, where he held various positions as Secretary of the Genetic Resources Commission for 30 years. He was one of the initiators of the initiative to set up a bank to protect seeds and defend biodiversity. The idea had many friends. Spain applied to host this project, but it was ultimately decided in 2008 that construction would take place on an island in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard.

two centuries

Intended to ensure its useful persistence up to two centuries later, the new Noah’s Ark from seeds is located in the room of an old mine on a mountain at about 150 meters depth and 130 meters above sea level, with humidity and constantly low temperature over an area of about 1,000 square meters, divided into different chambers, with hardly any light. The seeds, about 500 per batch, are kept in envelopes with several layers of aluminum foil in boxes that state their properties. Owned by the Norwegian state, the bench required an investment of €9 million, with a further €20 million added to eliminate moisture, plus €1 million for annual maintenance. It is financially supported by the FAO, along with institutions or foundations such as the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

For safety reasons, the bench was built to withstand volcanic eruptions and earthquakes of up to 10 degrees on the Richter scale. The plant has reinforced steel tunnels, a constant temperature between -3° and -18° degrees Celsius to keep the seeds for two centuries, after a process of dehydration to 5% humidity, a process that some species cannot resist like acorns or chestnuts.

The banking center is declared a demilitarized zone. Since its inception, it has deposited more than a million varieties from 86 countries and institutions, corresponding to nearly 6,000 species. In general, depositors did not come to the rescue because they had some problem with the availability of their seeds. The only institution forced to recover seeds was the International Research Center for Dryland Agriculture, ICARDA, due to the destruction of 148,000 varieties it had in its warehouse in Aleppo (Syria) as a result of the war. The entity had sent an 80 percent duplicate of their seeds to Svalbard. In 2015, ICARDA withdrew 50,000 cultivars for planting and, after collecting and replacing them in their own bank, sent another 50,000 seeds back to the center.

Recalling the “threat” of the loss of biodiversity in the world due to the lack of use of species and varieties adapted to the environmental conditions, Esquinas warns of the risks posed by the fact that today’s food supply is linked to the commercial sale of no more than 150 seeds, which is considered real “barbarism”. In his opinion, these are very uniform and stable varieties that better withstand the use of pesticides, insecticides or agrochemicals, but for the same reason the seeds can be affected by the same disease, cold or drought and they all die, something that happens in the other varieties that have adapted to climate change do not. In this regard, he warns that the loss of diversity and the rise of new supply mean agriculture is more productive, but much more vulnerable.

Spain keeps a thousand varieties

Although the measures taken in Spain to avoid the loss of varieties and the recovery of seeds date back to the late 19th century when phylloxera decimated the vineyards, the main strategy in this direction dates back to the 1970s and 1980s with the measures taken by the National Institute for Agrarian Research, INIA, together with the Higher Council for Scientific Research, CSIC, the result of which are more than thirty banks, the seeds of which the National Bank has a copy in the form of the Center for Plant Genetic Resources (CRF). . In its mission to store, obtain and improve seeds, the CRF has a fund of around 44,000 varieties. Since March this year, Spain has deposited more than a thousand seeds in Svalbard, of which 300 are winter cereals, 114 are wheat, 510 are legumes and 200 are vegetables.

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