Deep inside a vast abandoned coal mine on a remote island mountain halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole lies the Global Seed Vault.
A kind of Noah's ark for crops, the secure location (nicknamed the 'doomsday vault') was built in 2008 and houses around 864,000 samples. The idea is that the extreme arctic temperature is enough to preserve the seeds, even in the case of nuclear destruction. Today the center's total capacity is estimated to be around 4.5 million seeds.
The plants, which are gathered from almost every country in the world, can only be accessed in the result of a severe catastrophe. Cue the Syrian conflict.
A senior spokesperson for the seed bank, Brian Lainoff, recently told Reuters that due to the ongoing violent conflict some 130 boxes filled with 116,000 samples have been requested by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in the Middle East.
Fighting among the Syrian government, rebel groups, and ISIS have devastated the country. Approximately one seventh of the Seed Vault's current stock has been transferred to Beirut where ICARDA has established a new lab, formerly headquartered in Aleppo.
Protecting the world's biodiversity is the vault's very purpose. Professor Cary Fowler, one of its creators, said the plants are preserved for a changing world:
"Sometimes you wonder, why are we saving something? But it might have just one particular trait and that trait might, economically, be so valuable that it would pay the cost of your entire gene bank [...] I can tell you that we're going to face a huge food security crisis and we need not only to conserve this diversity but we need to research it.
If something were to happen to one of these collections around the world, they can always come back to the seed vault and retrieve what might have been lost."
Worldwide, more than 1,700 gene-banks hold collections of food crops for safekeeping. Many are vulnerable, exposed not only to natural catastrophes and war, but also to avoidable disasters.
You can visit and explore the Seed Vault in an interactive application here – just don't eat it all. Primary funding for the trust that supports the vault comes from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Crazy how a giant fridge might be the only thing capable of saving humanity from an apocalypse.
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