Chile keeps vault of seeds to protect biodiversity in case of disaster

For the past 25 years, the Chilean agriculture ministry´s Institute of Agriculture and Livestock Investigations has kept a highly secured vault built in the middle of a mountain that is meant to protect seeds and preserve agricultural biodiversity in cases of a natural disaster or a human-caused catastrophe.

“I am in charge of a bank of seeds that is similar to the Doomsday Vault in Norway,” Pedro Leon, who is a plant ecologist and is also in charge of the Bank of Seeds of the Experimental Center of Vicuna in northern Chile, said in a telephone interview from Chile with the Latin Business Daily.

“The objective is to conserve and protect for future generations seeds all varieties of crops,” he said. The seeds include both traditional Andean ancestral crops as well as all others used for cultivation in Chile, and includes those of wild plants native to Chile.

The vault is part of a system of five seed-and tubers-banks across Chile created mainly with the purpose of supplying seeds for genetic improvement like those to improve resistance to plagues, droughts or freezing periods. The vault of the experimental center of Vicuna is the only one that has the main purpose of protecting biodiversity from any potential catastrophe, he said.

The vault keeps the seeds at a temperature of 18 degrees centigrade and at 20 percent of relative humidity while the water content in the seeds is limited, he said. “If the water is extracted from the seed, it can significantly improve its life term,” Leon said.

The vault, which keeps seeds of edible plants including wheat and peas in addition to species used as animal fodder, is away from cities and potential human-caused conflicts. Its structure of 50-centimeter thick concrete walls is capable of resisting earthquakes, mudslides, other natural disasters and potential social unrest. The chambers where the seeds are kept are sealed and the center has an electricity system that includes back-ups.

Low temperatures and controlled humidity help prolong seed life for a minimum of 50 years, though some seeds kept in those conditions can have a life term of up to 500 years. The vault has the capacity for up to 72,000 seed samples though it currently only houses 15,000. Seeds from other countries and regions could eventually be stored there as well, but that would depend on agreements.

Preserving seeds “is an urgent necessity, thinking about climatic change,” Leon said. While costs can be high, particularly the energy bills to keep the refrigeration, the cost-to-benefit relation is positive, he said.

Humans are “constantly destroying and degrading ecosystems. There is much devastation already in the Andean region and countries need to make efforts” to preserve vegetable life, Leon said.

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