Saving seeds for the future in the Arctic Circle | Pacific Beat

Saving seeds for the future in the Arctic Circle

Saving seeds for the future in the Arctic Circle

Updated 15 February 2012, 12:48 AEDT

Food security is an ongoing concern right across the Pacific.

Solomon Islands for instance has its own seed bank, which makes stocks readily available to communities when food gardens are destroyed by natural disasters.

Now Australia is about to make its first deposit in the "doomsday" seed vault in northern Norway, inside the Arctic circle.

The Australian seeds will be stored alongside those donated by some 40 other countries.

So what exactly is this vault and why do we need it?

Dr Tony Gregson from the Crawford Fund is the chairman of Plant Health Australia and he's about to make the journey to Norway.

Presenter: Geraldine Coutts.

Speaker: Dr Tony Gregson, chairman, Plant Health Australia, immediate past president of Biodivesity International.

DR GREGSON: It's a very robust structure, concrete, made into the side of a mountain at Svalbard in the Spitsbergen Highlands in the Arctic. It's there as backup to store seeds, food crop seeds from around the world to preserve in case of a catastrophe in one of the gene banks that hold these seeds in other parts of the world.

COUTTS: Now you will be representing Australia, you are taking off soon for the Arctic Circle to deposit some grains from the Wimmera, here in Victoria. Is that correct?

DR GREGSON: That's correct. This is Australia's first contribution to the global seed vault. There are 343 samples of seeds from the Australian temperate field crops collection in Horsham. They have been chosen by the curator, Dr Bob Reddan. They will be 301 samples of peas, that mainly come from a collection trip in China, and 42 samples of chickpeas that have come from a very old collection from the Lebanon. Much of the material is unique to the world, so it's very important that they are preserved for as long as possible.

COUTTS: Is that one of the pre-requisites in selection of grains or whatever seeds for the vault that they have to be unique?

DR GREGSON: Not necessarily unique, but obviously have to be important, they have to be food crops and they have to go into the vault under the auspices of the international treaty for plants and agri-resources for food and agriculture. Australia has ratified the treaty, so therefore Australia is able and invited to contribute to the vault's contents.

COUTTS: Now the Pacific, the patch which we broadcast to have got their own seed banks and are acutely aware of food security. Are the Pacific grains or unique plants and seeds represented in this vault?

DR GREGSON: As far as I know, not yet, but over time, I'm sure that will happen. Some of the seed crops from the Pacific are not the normal sort of well known crops, like wheat and barley and so on, but they are very important food crops for people of the South Pacific.

COUTTS: Your leaving flood drenched Wimmera, which is in Victoria, and so it makes us acutely aware of the importance of our own stocks as well. Is it a problem getting viable stocks to take to the vault, because of the recent happenings here in Australia?

DR GREGSON: Eh not normally, no. Our seeds are stored in fixed gene banks around Australia. The seeds taken to Svalbard are backup copies, like an insurance policy. This sample or box of seeds that will be deposited is the first of, I hope, many.

COUTTS: Are there strict quarantine procedures to go through, because what you don't want is a new seed affecting the rest of the seeds that are in the bank?

DR GREGSON: Eh, very true and that's a very, very important consideration for Australia, because Australia would like in an emergency to import these seeds back from the vault without having to go through quarantine protocols, that was one of the key issues that had to be sorted out before the plant breeders will let the seeds leave Australia.

COUTTS: Just like ours, world seed collections are vulnerable, like I said, the Pacific has their own seed banks and we're all aware of food security and natural disasters are on us just about everyday it seems. Why is it we're only just getting a vault of this kind up and running now?

DR GREGSON: Good question. It has always been thought about as something that the global community needs, but it's only in the last four or five years that a real effort was mounted in part by my own institution in Rome, Bioversity, FIO and the consultative group of International Agriculture Research to provide the where with all and the money to put up such a vault. The Norwegian Government came to the rescue and funded the vault, it is now operated by the Global Crops Diversity Trust and it's having its third birthday I think next week.

COUTTS: Well not to be a harbinger of gloom and doom, but how safe is the vault in Norway, because we've got climate change now, we've got the melting of the ice caps all over the place, unforseen I suppose natural disasters ahead of us. How safe is that vault?

DR GREGSON: Well, according to the experts, it's as safe as any place on earth actually. It's built deliberately 60 metres above current sea level, which is above any predicted sea level rise, built into solid rock. It's in a permanent perma frost, so the temperature will never rise above about minus 20 degrees C and as my friend, the director of Able Diversity Trust said it is patrolled by polar bears. It's probably as safe as any place on earth at the moment. I think it's in an earthquake free zone as well. As far as we can tell, it is the safest place on earth.

COUTTS: Now if Pacific nations listening now want to be party to it, how do they go about it?

DR GREGSON: I guess they can talk to their seed bank curator which I think is in Fiji, is that not correct? And try and make arrangements and try and trying to get the curator to start making arrangements with the Global Seed Fault. There is agreement between the kingdom of Norway and the depositor and the depositor in your case would probably be the seed bank in Fiji.

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