Construction begins this month on a Norwegian “doomsday” vault that will house seeds from all known food crops throughout the world, in an effort to protect the future of agriculture from catastrophe.

According to a recent BBC article, the vault, which is backed by more than 100 countries, “aims to safeguard the world’s agriculture from future catastrophes, such as nuclear war, asteroid strikes and climate change. ” By collecting and preserving seeds from around the world, the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which is set to oversee the collection, hopes to provide for the “conservation of crop diversity in perpetuity.”

As Cary Fowler, the Trust’s executive director, explains, “We want a safety net because we do not want to take too many chances with crop biodiversity.” The vault will be used as a backup system, to support the many seed banks throughout the world.

The vault is being built on the island of Spitsbergen, 354 feet inside a frozen mountain. The remote island, one of four Svalbard Islands, was chosen for its stability and isolation (and yes, they did make sure that even with predicted global warming and rising sea levels, the seeds should be safe). The permafrost on the island will help to keep the seeds cold if the refrigeration system should fail.

Set to begin operations in 2008, the vault will ultimately operate without a full time staff. “Somebody will go up there once every year to physically check inside to see that everything is OK, ” explains Fowler, “but there will be no full-time staff. If you design a facility to be used in worst-case scenarios, then you cannot actually have too much dependency on human beings.”

The plan, though fascinating, brings up some questions. Will only heritage seeds be preserved, or are more recent GMO seeds included as well? (and will the big, bad GMO seeds beat up the heritage seeds once the yearly inspectors have left?).

Me, I’m just glad that while I’m busy accidentally killing my basil seedlings, somebody is looking out for the big picture.

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