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Global seed vault, a modern Noah’s Ark. In the permafrost a stronghold of seeds and a model of ecumenism

A vault beneath the rocks to preserve the world’s most precious seeds at -18 degrees: rice, wheat, beans, soybeans, alfalfa, com, peanuts… the purpose of this precious “bank” - located on an island of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago – is to protect future generations from global disasters and ensure humanity’s food supply in case of natural or man made disasters. At the centre of the town where the staff have their homes is located Svalbard Kirche, the northernmost chapel in the world, belonging to Norway’s Lutheran Church. Close cooperation with the Catholic and Orthodox communities

There is a place in the world, 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, where life is put at dire test, that is home to one of the most precious crates for our survival and that of future generations. It’s the “Global seed vault”, a storage facility that preserves the seeds of over one million plants and crops of world countries. It was built ten years ago on the island of Spitsbergen, the largest of the remote Svalbard archipelago, deep in the permafrost, protected from volcano eruptions, earthquakes, air strikes and environmental disasters of all kinds, with the support of FAO, Norwegian Government funding, in cooperation with the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

One million samples. There isn’t much to see. Having crossed the cinder block tunnel unnaturally poking out of the mountain, a 100mt underpass opens into the three rooms of the storage facility, each with a capacity of over 1.5 million seed samples. Only one is open for now because the seeds stored to date amount to 1.060.987. Dried seeds are preserved in sealed foil packages and in special air-tight storage containers on metal shelving. Every storage box has a label with all the relevant information, available also on the NordGen open-access database. The most delicate aspect is to maintain a temperature of -18°, ensured by the permafrost, the glacier inside which was created the “Global seed vault”, that has an additional freezing system.

Frozen Eden. The seed bank ensures the preservation of over 5000 crop seeds samples, described as a “frozen Garden of Eden” with rice, wheat, barley (some tens of thousands of samples), sorghum, beans, corn, soy and chickpeas, peanuts, Cajanus seeds, oats and rye, alfalfa … The owners of the seeds, from 176 institutions of 225 Countries, are the same depositors who use the Svalbard vault as a backup of their seeds. In fact, there exist 1.750 seed banks worldwide located in over 100 Countries that preserve seeds samples that in some cases are already extinct. The deep-freeze seed bank in the permafrost is a further guarantee that can be accessed in case of need. It happened for the first time in 2015, when the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), with headquarters in Aleppo, asked to withdraw its seeds from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault having been forced to abandon its seed bank with over 150 thousand seed samples as a result of the armed conflict. The purpose of this precious “bank” is to protect future generations from global disasters and ensure humanity’s food supply in case of natural or man made disasters. It’s a commitment for the future of humankind.

Svalbard Kirche. The doors are opened only when delegations arrive with their seeds. The few people working in the storage facility live in the nearby town of Longyearbyen. None of the 2000 people living here stay a long time. In the centre of the town is located Svalbard Kirche, the world’s northernmost church, belonging to the Lutheran Church of Norway, the first to ensure its presence on the island that today is animated by

A pastor, a pastoral assistant, and an organist, with a busy schedule of meetings, choirs, celebrations, cultural initiatives and generosity.

In fact this church pays for “the three/four yearly visits of Tromsø’s parish priest to the Catholic inhabitants of the island”, said Msgr. Torbjørn Olsen, who edited a book on the Svalbard islands in 2013.

Ecumenism beyond the Arctic Circle. The parish priest, Fr Marek Michalski, speaks only Polish and Norwegian and communicating is difficult… Fr Marek celebrates Holy Mass in the Lutheran church and meets the Catholic community in Longyearbyen. “There is a beautiful cooperation between the Catholic and Lutheran Churches”, as well as with the Orthodox Church, which has a chapel in Barentsburg, the Russian mining town. Fr Marek also visits the 20 people living in the Polish research station of Ny-Ålesund, one hour away by helicopter. “The contacts and meetings with these people”, living there in isolation, “constitute a fundamental pastoral activity.” Father Olsen said there are many conversions in these “beautiful, inhospitable” places, as happened for the chef of Ny-Ålesund, from Germany. When he returned to his homeland he became a Benedictine monk. The island’s inhabitants are “welcoming, friendly, and lovers of nature.” Snow sleighs, the only means of transport to travel by land, and polar bears, that one should always beware of by always being armed when leaving populated areas, are the recurring features of polar stories and imagery on these islands that were once the destinations of miners in search of coals and today have become research, fishing and tourist sites.

The tenth anniversary. Thus it wasn’t difficult to welcome the many people who arrived in Longyearbyen at the end of February to celebrate Svalberg Seed Vault’s tenth anniversary. On that occasion Norway’s Agriculture Minister Jon G. Dale announced renovation works to build a new concrete access tunnel and a facility to store the emergency power and cooling units and other equipment. In fact at the end of 2016 water infiltrated into the access tunnel as a result of the unexpected thawing of parts of the external rock.

The precious seeds remain safe for now, but climate-change concerns linger on.

During a conference held during the celebrations, Ann Tutwiler, the director general of Bioversity International, highlighted the urgent need to protect crops that cannot be preserved through seeds (banana, cocoa, manioc, coconut, coffee, potatoes and sweet potatoes): there is no Svalbard vault for them, but the option of cryopreservation is being examined. Bioversity International has already made some progress in conjunction with the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, where over 60% of the world samples of bananas are already object of cryopreservation and the university has developed specific protocols for other 30 samples. With his Ark Noah managed to overcome the flood. The noble precedent encourages us to have faith in these arks of the future.

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