More than a million seeds are now safe in the " Noah's Ark" buried in the frozen lands of the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago, in the heart of the Arctic Ocean. Sacred corn of the Cherokee Indians, primroses from the meadows of Highgrove (the country residence of Prince Charles), wheat from Israel or Thai rice… Some 60,000 new seeds from all continents found their place in the underground alcoves of “Svalbard” on Tuesday Global Seed Vault ”, a vault dug a hundred meters deep on the main island of Spitsbergen.
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The arrival of new seeds on Tuesday is the most important since the creation in 2008 of this structure, managed mainly by the international organization Crop Trust (founded under the aegis of the UN). The objective is to save seeds to protect plant diversity from natural disasters, nuclear accidents, wars ... Today, the vault holds the most diverse collection of seeds of food crops in the world. It can accommodate up to 4.5 million varieties.
The foundation's website offers a virtual tour of the facilities. Two discreet gray doors lost in the snow and surmounted by a futuristic structure with bluish, sparkling reflections, mark the entrance to the surface. A long tunnel of a hundred meters provides access to the cold rooms where “black boxes” are stored on shelves containing the seeds wrapped in aluminum foil.
In these rooms, the temperature does not exceed -18 ° C. "The seeds are thus stored more easily, they remain viable for about fifty years, the aim being that they allow the regeneration of whole plants" , says Jean-Louis Pham, researcher at the Research Institute for Development ( IRD) and leader of the Arcad * project. "The organizations that entrust us with the seeds are the only ones who can withdraw them, " explains Cierra Martin, spokesperson for Crop Trust. There is no transfer of ownership. ”
The black boxes containing the seeds are stored on shelves, in rooms where it is not more than -18 ° C. Global Crop Diversity Trust
There are more than 1,700 seed banks worldwide, often under the authority of a government or international organizations. Farmers or researchers use it in particular to obtain the crop diversity they need. The Svalbard site is a bit the last link in the chain. "The 'Seed Vault' plays the role of insurer for other gene banks ," explains the spokesperson. If they lose their own resources, their collections can be restored by recovering duplicates from Svalbard. This has already happened: in 2015, in Aleppo, wheat seeds, lentils or chickpeas disappeared in the destruction of the bank in the Syrian city.
"As the pace of climate change and biodiversity loss accelerates, efforts to save endangered food crops are becoming more urgent," said Stefan Schmitz, Director of Crop Trust. The foundation recalls for example that China has already lost 90% of varieties of rice since 1950, Mexico 80% of varieties of corn since 1900.
Located in an isolated area, the ark is however not immune to the vagaries of the climate. In October 2016, heavy rains and the melting of frozen ground led to the flooding of the entrance tunnel. Twenty million euros of work was necessary to build a new watertight access, improve safety procedures and develop a more efficient cooling system. Crop Trust spokesperson assures him: today, the safe can face the worst scenarios in terms of rising temperatures and rising sea levels.
Wheat, rice, oats ... France, which also has a network of seed banks spread over its territory, sent 5,762 samples to Svalbard. But the Norwegian safeguard system is not a priority for the country, notes Jean-Louis Pham. “At Svalbard, it's a particular concept: it's the ultimate deposit. Those who put collections do so as a backup, without ever really touching it. But it is a static, frozen conservation ” which does not take into account the evolution of the continuous diversity of plants under the impact of man or the climate. "Ex-situ (as in Svalbard) and in situ (on a farm) conservation are complementary conservation approaches" , admits Cierra Martin.
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As the French researcher reminds us, “what is important is the diversity that is cultivated in the fields. We now measure the importance, with agroecology, of cultivating this diversity because it is also the diversity of insects, fauna and associated microorganisms. Everything else should be seen as a support system. Conservation is not an objective in itself. ”
* The Arcad project (Agropolis Resource Center for Crop Conservation, Adaptation and Diversity) is devoted to the development in Montpellier of a multi-institutional center for conservation and research on Mediterranean and tropical plants.