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.
"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
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