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The entrance of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway aims to preserve as many different varieties of crop species as possible before they disappear.

PHOTOGRAPH BY PAUL NICKLEN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic

Published February 27, 2014

Beer and whiskey lovers, raise a glass to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which has just taken in 20,000 new crop varieties—including 575 types of barley.

The seeds, sourced from more than a hundred countries, arrived this week to coincide with the vault's sixth birthday. As a "safety deposit box" to protect the diversity of the world's food genes, the advanced facility houses 820,619 crop varieties in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway (map), according to Luigi Guarino, senior scientist with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, one of the vault's partners. (Related: "Pictures: 'Doomsday' Seed Vault Safeguards Our Food Supply.")

The goal of the vault is to safely preserve as many different varieties of crop species as possible before they disappear. As we've come to rely on just a handful of the highest yielding varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains, thousands of other varieties are disappearing at an alarming rate.

Given an uncertain future, with climate change and diseases that could wipe out a variety overnight, scientists say it's important to keep as many different crop varieties as we can.

Many research universities and institutes worldwide already maintain their own gene banks of food crops—essentially refrigerators of dried seeds. But these facilities can be vulnerable to disasters such as civil war, typhoons, and fires, said Guarino. That's where the Global Seed Vault—also called the Doomsday Seed Vault—comes in.

A view inside the seed vault.
Photograph by Jim Richardson, National Geographic
Agriculture expert Cary Fowler investigates samples at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which houses 820,619 crop varieties.

"It's always a good insurance policy to keep a copy of the seed and send that copy up to Svalbard," he said. (Read more about seed banks around the world in National Geographic magazine.)

Here are a few highlights of the recent acquisition.

"Space Beer" Barley

In the first ever seed deposit from Japan, the Barley Germplasm Center, located at Okayama University, sent in 575 types of barley, with plans to send another 5,000 in the future.

Barley experts in the country became concerned about the stability of their gene banks following the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

That's because the grain is a staple of traditional Japanese cuisine, or washoku. Barley is fermented to make beer, forms the base of miso soup, is roasted to make a cold tea called mugicha, and is distilled to make a Scotch-like whiskey. (Read "Food Ark" in National Geographic magazine.)

In 2010, Japanese brewer Sapporo made a limited-edition "space beer" with barley grown from seeds that spent five months in Russia's Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station. (Related: "Space Beer Ready for Taste Testing.")

"Barley is very important not just for Japan but for the food security of the world," said Kazuhiro Sato, a professor at Okayama University's Institute of Plant Science and Resources, in a statement. "We have varieties that are productive even in dry conditions and in saline soils—so we need to do everything we can to ensure they always will be available to future generations."

Saving Our Spuds

Several of the nearly 200 species of wild potato growing from Patagonia all the way north to Colorado could go extinct by 2050, said Guarino, thanks to loss of habitat and climate change. (Explore a potato interactive.)

That possibility has spurred the International Potato Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIP) to action. The center shipped 195 samples of wild potato and 61 of wild sweet potato to Svalbard, in part to protect the species and to experiment with creating more nutritious, disease-resistant types of domestic potatoes. (Read more about frozen Svalbard in National Geographic magazine.)

Other "crown jewels of agriculture" are also new to the vault: The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish-language acronym CIMMYT) mailed in 1,946 types of maize, or corn, and 5,964 samples of wheat.

Svalbard's collection contains wheat seeds from individual villages throughout the world, which have baked their own unique breads through the centuries.

The Brazilian Bean

Brazilians eat black beans (feijão preto) with almost every meal, and they're an important ingredient in feijoada, a bean-and-pork stew that's largely considered the South American country's national dish.

To protect these bean varieties for the future, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (known as Embrapa) sent 514 samples to Svalbard. The selection represents a "microcosm" of all the black bean types in the country, Guarino added.

Overall, said Global Crop Diversity Trust's Brian Lainoff, the vault "shows how the world can work together on agriculture."

Follow Christine Dell'Amore on Twitter and Google+.

6 comments
Daniel Shults
Daniel Shults

My wife and I are in our last year of a bachelors / continuing on to master in Nutritional Science.

This Vault is a statement not only for the changing climate but also for the GM foods that are no longer organic.  We have not given these types of seeds enough time to be proven beneficial or otherwise.

Once genetics have been changed there is no going back, unless we have an original.

matt k
matt k

Good to know we will have beer when the world ends......

Daniel Rolan
Daniel Rolan

This is an important endeavor, given the dangerous threat to biodiversity in our planet. The book The Great Waves of Change provides a critical perspective on this threat and what we can personally do about it. The publisher offers a free eBook here: http://www.greatwavesofchange.org

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