Friday 6 December 2019

Cream of our brewing crop saved for eternity in doomsday seed bank

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in the Arctic circle
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in the Arctic circle
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

Beer drinkers and consumers of craft spirits can breathe a sigh of relief. The basic ingredients of your favourite tipple are to be preserved for eternity in a seed bank deep in the Arctic circle.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway has marked its 10th anniversary by taking in 70,000 crop varieties, including the 'Hunter' variety of malting barley, used in Irish craft brewing and distilling.

Some 90 microbreweries and 30 distilleries are either established or under construction in Ireland.

This has led to the Department of Agriculture and Food receiving "multiple requests" for seeds of heritage malting barley varieties, from companies interested in using this material for brewing and distilling purposes.

Ireland has made 1,209 deposits to date, with almost 860,000 seeds already stored, and more than 70,000 crops, including cereals and the unusual Estonian onion potato, were yesterday added to the -18C frozen storage chamber.

The doomsday vault is located 150 metres beneath a mountain, and is designed to safeguard seeds to meet future food needs.

The deposits will take the number of unique crop varieties received by the seed vault in the last decade to more than one million.

The seed vault first opened its doors in February 2008, as a backup facility for the world's seed banks.

The vault is housed inside a frozen mountain on the Svalbard archipelago.

Other important crops like black-eyed pea (cowpea), a major protein source in Africa and South Asia, were deposited yesterday, along with samples of sorghum, pearl millet and pigeon pea.

Several lesser-known crops also made the journey to the vault including Bambara groundnut, which is being developed as a drought-tolerant crop in parts of Africa, and the Estonian onion potato, which is being deposited together with varieties of beans that are unique to the eastern European country.

"The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is an iconic reminder of the remarkable conservation effort that is taking place every day, around the world and around the clock - an effort to conserve the seeds of our food crops," said Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, which operates the vault with the Norwegian government and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen).

"Safeguarding such a huge range of seeds means scientists will have the best chance of developing nutritious and climate-resilient crops that can ensure future generations don't just survive, but thrive."

Over the 10 years of the vault's history, only one institution has withdrawn seeds - the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), whose own seed bank in Syria became unable to operate due to civil war.

In 2015 and 2017, ICARDA requested some of its deposits of wheat, lentil, chickpea and other crops, in order for it to re-establish its research and conservation work at its sites in Lebanon and Morocco.

It has since managed to duplicate and return thousands of these varieties to Svalbard.

Irish Independent

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