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Global seed bank to save humanity

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At a meeting of the Food Agricultural Organization in Rome last year, The United Nations approved the idea of a "doomsday vault" or global seed bank to save humanity.This vault would be safe from any natural or man made disasters, and out of reach of any nuclear bomb. UN Radio's Jocelyne Sambira reports.

NARR: Not far from the North Pole, in a Norwegian town called Svalbard, is a secure deposit room representing varieties of crops from around the world. It is a sort of Noah's Ark of seeds that will keep samples in case global climate change, nuclear warfare, plant diseases and other disasters destroy them. Why the North Pole? Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust explains.

FOWLER: We chose the location because it is very remote and there are very few dangers associated with the modern world there. Also it is very cold there and one of the key ingredients of conserving seeds for long term is to freeze them and there we get naturally frozen temperatures. So, we could have a very secure facility that didn't actually depend on modern technology in a sense. It operates more or less by itself- in fact there is no full time staff there though it is monitored.

NARR: The issue of crop diversity conservation is a very contentious one however building the vault in Norway was a unanimous decision made by all participating countries. So how does it work? Cary Fowler of Global Crop Diversity Trust:

FOWLER: It's really very much like the safety deposit box you might have at the bank. Norway owns the facility, the mountain that the seed vault is in and NORGEN operates it. But the contents of the unopened packages remain the property of the depositor. So, there is no transfer of property rights and access to those packages is only granted to the institution that deposited those samples.

NARR: How do they decide which seeds to conserve? Jessica Kathle, Director of Nordic Genetic Resource Center sheds light on this.

KATHLE: The mission is to store seeds relevant to food and agriculture but we have also one case where we store also wild seeds from red-listed species from Norway. But it is a council deciding upon this. It is an international advisory council who will take the decision if the mission is expanded.

NARR: Climate change is already becoming a major threat to food security in Southern Africa which is an example why this project is relevant. Paul Munyenyembe, Head of South African Development Community, SADC, Plant Genetic resources centre (SPGRC) elaborates.

MUNYENYEMBE: In some areas, you know, due to climate change we are having floods. Those crops that are not adapted to flooding obviously will die and so if they die there will be no crop, no food for human consumption.

NARR: In addition to the conservation of seeds, the Nordic project also collaborates with the Southern African Development Community on other aspects of crop diversity conservation. Paul Munyenyembe explains.

MUNYENYEMBE: Our cooperation is based on training of personnel. They have also provided us with the gene banking equipment and we also collaborate in terms of running programs with them where scientists from our region as well as from the Nordic countries participate in these programs of plant genetic resource conservation.

NARR: In the midst of a global crisis, the doomsday vault project is an international and positive initiative to preserve the biological foundation of food security worldwide that just may save the world in a time of need. Reporting for United Nations Radio, I am Jocelyne Sambira.

(duration: 3'21")