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Rare, Unique Seeds Arrive at Svalbard Vault, as Crises Threaten World Crop Collections

Posted on: March 1, 2011

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) celebrated its third anniversary February 24 with the arrival of seeds for rare lima beans, blight-resistant cantaloupe, and progenitors of antioxidant-rich red tomatoes from Peru and the Galapagos Islands. The arrival of these collections, including many drought- and flood-resistant varieties, comes at a time when natural and human-made risks to agriculture have reinforced the critical need to secure all the world’s food crop varieties.

The seeds arriving for safekeeping in the depths of an Arctic Mountain on Norway’s remote Svalbard Archipelago included major deposits from genebanks maintained by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which is the largest single contributor of seeds to the Seed Vault.

Among the shipments is a Peruvian desert lima bean variety on the verge of extinction that was rescued by the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), as well as other lima beans and relatives that grow in very dry or high-altitude locations. In total, CIAT’s new shipments include 3,600 bean and forage samples collected from 94 countries, including Afghanistan, Nepal, Yemen, Vietnam and Zimbabwe.

Thousands of other cereal and bean varieties are being deposited by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is depositing forage crops. In Arizona, a Navajo ceremony was held to bless seeds of rare desert legumes from the University of Arizona before they began their long journey to Svalbard.

The new accessions, which will be added to the more than 600,000 already stored at Svalbard, include Agricultural Research Service-US Department of Agriculture (USDA) donations of soybeans collected by USDA researchers in China in the 1920s.

The USDA’s shipment also includes seed collections of Solanum chilense and Solanum galapagense, wild relatives of the tomato whose genetic material was used by breeders at USDA and the University of California, Davis, to create tomatoes high in lycopene (an antioxidant) and beta-carotene (a source of Vitamin A). Other US shipments included seeds for important disease-resistant varieties of spinach, maize and cantaloupe.

“The optimism generated by the arrival of this incredible bumper crop of contributions is tempered by the threats that seem to emerge almost daily to seed collections around the world,” said Cary Fowler, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which manages the Seed Vault in partnership with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resources Center in Sweden. “As the threats to agriculture escalate, the importance of crop diversity grows.”

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