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Global Seed Vault protects plants, warns of dark future

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Last Tuesday, Norway took a giant step forward toward forcing the world to accept the reality of global warming with its opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen.

The vault, essentially a large icebox sticking out of a snow-covered Arctic mountain, can store 4.5 million seed samples from around the world — and shield the fruits of the earth from the destructive forces of humankind.

Sound a bit intense? It is. Built on the Svalbard archipelago, the Norwegian vault sits just 600 miles from the North Pole, tucked far away from areas of potential warfare or destruction. The narrow yet tall concrete form juts out of the side of the sandstone mountain, which is used to maintain a cold temperature for the seeds hidden within.

The seeds, themselves compartmentalized within stacks of tiny gray boxes, will hopefully act as a backup for plants that are currently endangered or else threatened in the future by climate change, earthquakes, or, you know, nuclear war. If the world goes into disarray and certain plants are wiped out, the Svalbard vault will serve as a bank of sorts from which seeds can be removed and replanted.

As Cary Fowler, president of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which runs the vault, told the International Herald Tribune, “We are inside a mountain in the Arctic because we wanted a really, really safe place that operates by itself.”

The structure is indeed a necessity. As explained in a Feb. 28 Tribune article, “In Norway, Global Seed Vault guards genetic resources,” the UN Food and Agriculture Organization warns that the world has lost three-quarters of its crop biodiversity in the last century alone. Global warming, which — yes — is caused by humans, is creating an inhospitable environment for the survival of our world’s plants.

Such climate change will necessitate the ability of plants to withstand warmer climates, which could be challenging due to the speed with which global warming is setting in and altering our planet, not giving the plants time to adapt. Earthquakes and other natural disasters could also damage our flora. Moreover, if we human beings really can’t stand each other and feel the power-hungry need to attack each other with nuclear and biological weapons, innocent plants will be among the first to perish.

But what does it say about the world that we need to protect seeds in this way?

Despite there being similar effects to all of these potential issues — loss of natural flora, loss of subsistence, loss of human life — I must ask: Since when is an earthquake the same thing as a nuclear war? There is something wrong in the fact that we must build a protective vault, hidden by the barren landscape of the Arctic, as a means of responding to our own mistakes.

We can’t control everything, although it’s commendable of Norway to take some proactive measures to deal with such issues when they occur. But nuclear war? We can prevent that.

While only 1.5 million different seeds are thought to exist on Earth now, the Svalbard vault has the potential to house variations on those plants and new ones yet to exist in the future. But what if we are so self-destructive that the earth is never even allowed to reach that future point?

I am impressed by Norway’s initiative to build the vault. It is, frankly, quite stately and dramatic. The cold, concrete facades feature blue and yellow lights and an ornamental metallic structure, which was incorporated as part of the Norwegian mandate that 1 percent of public building projects must go toward artwork.

Furthermore, because of climate changes worldwide, which challenge plants’ survival by heightened temperatures, heavy rains, and flooding, saving what we can of nature is a must. I am thankful that Norway (and the U.K., Australia, Germany, and the U.S., which each contributed $20 million, $12 million, $11 million, and $6.5 million, respectively) actually did something about global warming instead of just pointing it out and not taking any initiatives.

That said, we can’t yet rest assured. This vault, while proactive, does not stop global warming. Instead, it demonstrates that we’re increasingly helpless against the monsters that are climate change and violent foreign policy — monsters we created. Norway should be commended for using its natural landscape to house Earth’s precious natural resources.

The general public must see that the presence of a need for this vault means that environmental irresponsibility is all too present and powerful. As a united group of people living on Earth, we need to get responsible about our planet and own up to the way we treat it.