Norway plans seed bank to safeguard food biodiversity

OSLO, Norway, June 27, 2005 (ENS): Norway will make use of its icy climate to establish an agricultural seed bank as a safety net for global food security, the government announced Thursday. The goal is to protect food resources against plant diseases and the effects of climate change, wars and natural disasters.

Planned for the remote Svalbard islands that lie to the north of mainland Norway, the seed depository will be the only one of its kind in the world, said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"Svalbard is an ideal location for this purpose," the ministry said. "Owing to the permafrost, the seeds will retain their ability to germinate for a long time, even if electricity supplies fail."

The facility in Svalbard is scheduled to be opened in 2006, although the ministry has not specified a location as yet.

The depository will store genetic copies of seeds that are already being stored in gene depositories elsewhere in the world, providing an additional safety net for the world’s food supply.

The seed depository will store seeds of the crop plants that are most important for food security, depending on what users of the facility want, said ministry spokeswoman Wera Helstroem.

The depository will operate like its counterpart in the financial world, she said. Client countries will put in deposits and make withdrawals, but Norway will own the facility.

Seeds contain the genetic blueprints that determine plant characteristics, and wide genetic variation makes it possible to grow crops under different climatic conditions and to provide a broad selection of foods all over the world.

This biological diversity provides an insurance against climate change, plant diseases and pests.

The Svalbard Arctic seed depository initiative has been well received in the international community, the foreign ministry said.

The ownership and distribution of the gains from genetic plant material have long been a sensitive issue, but Norway has signed international agreements that will ensure proper management of the Arctic seed depository, said the ministry.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food will co-operate to establish the seed depository.

The northernmost part of the Kingdom of Norway, Svalbard consists of nine main islands. Only 2,330 people live on the mountainous, treeless islands, largely covered by glaciers and snowfields.

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