Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault resembles "a Bond villain's lair," writes the Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg, but rather than housing someone hoping to take over the world within its "cathedral"-like facility, there are the seeds of some 4,000 plant species, or 720,000 individual samples, that have been placed there in hopes of saving the world.
The site is designed to be disaster-proof, she adds, to keep seeds from crops on which human civilization depends safe. And if disaster strikes, and there is widespread crop failure, seeds stored at Svalbard would provide the jumping-off platform to breed new varieties, Goldenberg writes. She notes that crops like wheat and corn are thought to be at risk from fluctuations in weather as well as the effects of pests and disease, especially as farmers have switched from local varieties to hybridized ones.
However, critics say that such a vault is not the best way to safeguard the genetic diversity of crops. Instead, Goldenberg reports, they argue that keeping more varieties growing in the field is the best route to protecting diversity.
"Whichever of the competing strategies for saving crop diversity is the right one — in seed banks or in the fields — the reality is that both approaches are starved of support," she says, noting that they are also "struggling to keep up with technology" as little is known about the genetics of these plants.