An isolated doomsday vault located between Norway and the Arctic Circle contains 930,000 seeds from food crops around the world. A huge steel door protects the entrance to the facility, which is deep inside a mountainside.
The depository is essential for humankind’s future.
The Global Seed Vault contains seeds from around the world, some of which contain genetics from the world’s oldest cultivated crop varieties. The seeds may hold the key to survival should a widespread disease outbreak occur. More than 1,700 similar, but much smaller seed banks exist around the world. Most are underfunded and struggling to survive.
Although yields have increased remarkably in recent decades, genetic diversity has declined at an alarming rate. Researchers say that 30 crops provide 95 percent of the genetics for crops that we depend upon for food production. The United States has lost 90 percent of its fruit and vegetable varieties since 1900.
The livestock genetic base has also shrunk, which increases the risk of disabling disease outbreaks.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization reports that genetic diversity in livestock is essential for meat production. Yet, research is seriously underfunded and poorly managed.
Livestock breed development in the 20th century was limited to a few select breeds and the trend is expected to pick up speed as the 21st century matures. The genetic base in the Holstein breed is dangerously small and getting smaller. The same is true for many beef breeds.
The concern involving seeds and breeds has received scant attention as efforts continue to be focused on increasing crop yields and livestock productivity. Fortunately, efforts to protect heirloom genetics continue.
The Seed Savers Exchange near Decorah, Iowa, is part of the effort. The facility has a nationwide reputation as a keeper of heirloom garden varieties. There are many others.
Almost a million vials of livestock semen are kept in the National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo. The collection includes genetics from 167 domesticated breeds and 36 species. Scientists involved in the project say the samples, if kept in the current environment, will remain viable for 1,000 years if not longer. The National Laboratory continues to collect semen in hopes of expanding genetic diversity.
More than 100 similar gene banks exist worldwide with many of them in need of additional funding.
Obviously, genetic diversity is not a hot-button issue among farmers. However, it is vital if agriculture production will meet the expanded demand from a growing population.
It is a concern linked to providing adequate funding for land-grant universities and volunteer groups. The collectors of seed and animal genetics operate without publicity, but their importance extends to every field and livestock building.