IMAGE: NORWEGIAN ISLAND
NOAA
In announcing it would create a global seed bank on the Svalbard Islands, Norway did not say exactly where but the archipelago includes a few existing settlements like this one at Alesund.
updated 6/24/2005 10:19:11 AM ET 2005-06-24T14:19:11

Using its natural environment as a freezer of sorts, Norway has announced it will create a seed bank on a remote Arctic island that aims to preserve the genetic diversity on the planet.

The Arctic seed bank, to open next year on the Svalbard Islands, is intended to protect the genetic materials of critical world food crops from such threats as plant epidemics, climate change, war and natural disasters, a foreign ministry news release said.

“The depot will be unique in the world,” the ministry said. “The depot will have examples of seeds that are already stored in gene banks in other parts of the world, and will serve as an extra safety net for the world’s food supplies.”

The Svalbard Archipelago, some 300 miles north of the mainland, was selected because of its remote location, cold climate and permafrost.

"Owing to the permafrost, the seeds will retain their ability to germinate for a long time, even if electricity supplies fail," the ministry said.

Nations 'own what is in the bank'
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Wera Helstroem said many details still have to be settled, since the project has just been approved. But she said it was already clear that the facility will include about $3 million in new infrastructure.

“Svalbard is an ideal location for such a facility,” Helstroem said. “Norway is also seen as a good place, because it has a stable society and democracy.”

The number of seeds, and types of plants, will be determined by the countries deciding to use the seed bank, she said. Norway intends to ease any concerns about ownership by operating the seed depot as if it were a bank vault.

“It’s like having a bank box. We own the vault, but the other countries own what is in the bank box,” Helstroem said. “They can put things in and take them out whenever they want to.”

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