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Ancient crops preserved for future generations in Arctic seed vault

Potato varieties once thought lost to the Andean people who introduced them to the world will now be safeguarded for future generations

Photo: Luis Salazar/The Crop Trust
Representatives of indigenous Andean communities deposit the potato seeds in the Svalbard vault.

27 August 2015, Svalbard, Norway - Varieties of one of the world's most important staple crops have now been stored for perpetuity deep in the Arctic ice. José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) joined scientific experts and delegations from Peru, Costa Rica and Norway to witness a ceremony here that will help to preserve these vital crops for future generations.

The deposit was made at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a back-up facility in the permafrost far north of the Arctic Circle that currently holds over 860,000 food crop seeds from all over the world. Its operation is co-funded by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, whose mission is to conserve the planet's crop diversity for the food security of current and future generations, and the government of Norway. 

Representatives of indigenous Andean communities who worked together to establish the Parque de la Papa, in Cusco, Peru, have deposited 750 potato seeds. The seeds are the result of benefit-sharing projects supported by FAO's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The farmers were joined by scientists from the Center for Agricultural Research at the University of Costa Rica, who also added wild potato relatives to the largest agro-biodiversity collection in the world.

The potato: A humble giant

The potato originated in the Andes of South America. Over the centuries, Andean farmers have bred over 2,000 varieties in all shapes, colours and sizes. In addition, there are dozens of wild relatives of the potato stretching from Uruguay to Arizona. The potato is now the world's third-most consumed food, feeding more than a billion people every day. This remarkable tuber, which is low in fat but high in protein, calcium and vitamin C, is grown on every continent where people live.

However, changing climate and diseases such as potato blight − which causes $8.5 billion worth of potato losses every year in the developing world alone − pose a significant challenge to this priceless natural resource, as do the modernization of agriculture and changes in land-use. Many potato varieties have been lost in recent decades, both to the Andean communities from which they originated, and to the global community as a whole.

In response, a coalition of local, regional and international partners joined forces to reintroduce potato varieties in the field, and to preserve these vital plant genetic resources in genebanks. The Peru-based International Potato Centre (CIP), home to the world's largest potato crop collection, is working to preserve and reintroduce the diversity of potatoes in partnership with local and regional initiatives across the globe. Working with Asociación ANDES-IIED and Parque de la Papa, CIP has, since 2002, returned over 400 potato accessions to indigenous communities.

International treaty supports sharing of knowledge

The sharing of such plant genetic resources across national boundaries is facilitated by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

The Treaty, which is hosted at FAO, works through a multilateral system of access and benefit-sharing that helps ensure that farmers and researchers have access to a large diversity of seeds and other plant genetic material - and a fair share of the benefits resulting from any new varieties. The genetic information held in many crop varieties and wild plants supports the development of new fast-growing, high-yielding crops - as well as varieties that are more resistant to heat, drought, salinity, pests and diseases, all critical traits in a warming world.

For example, with funding from the Treaty's Benefit Sharing Fund, and further support from the Crop Trust, farmers involved in the Parque de la Papa learned how to pollinate their potatoes and collect seeds for storage. Some of the seeds were used to develop new varieties to feed their communities, while others were prepared and shipped to Svalbard for today's deposit.

FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva and the depositors from Peru and Costa Rica were greeted by Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Crop Trust, Hanne Maren Blaafjelldal, State Secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food at 17:50 local time and escorted deep into the subterranean storage vault for the deposit.

A shared effort, a common good

Founded ten years ago by FAO and the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the Crop Trust is the international organization devoted solely to safeguarding the world's crop diversity. To this end, it is seeking to raise a total of USD 500 million, which will guarantee the maintenance and availability of key international plant collections of critical importance to our food supply, including that of CIP.
Norway is one of the biggest supporters of the Crop Trust's work. It currently funds a 10-year global project that seeks to safeguard the wild relatives of the important food crops. And it is thanks to the generous support of the Norwegian people and government that the Seed Vault has become a reality.

From 2006-11, while heading FAO's Regional Office for Latin America, Graziano da Silva actively supported crop conservation initiatives, including the Parque de la Papa. Four years later, and many miles from the Andes, he oversaw the seed deposit that assures potato diversity will be safeguarded for the future.

The combination of in situ conservation in the field, including community seed banks, with ex situ preservation in international genebanks - combining centuries-old tradition with cutting edge science - is now coming full circle. Local farmers growing varieties that were previously feared lost are sharing the diverse collection of potatoes - this global common good - with the world, and making sure back-up copies are safely secured in the Arctic tundra of Svalbard so that they will never lose them again.

Quotes from:

Minister of Agriculture and Livestock of Costa Rica, Luis Felipe Arauz Cavallini
"Costa Rica welcomes this new opportunity to deposit Costa Rican seeds in Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This is a way to conserve our plant genetic heritage and safeguard it in perpetuity in case of any eventuality, whether natural, pests, diseases, or even disaster caused by humans."

José Graziano da Silva, Director-General, FAO
"In a few decades, our planet's food systems will need to feed an additional 2 billion people. Producing more -- and more nutritious -- food will be made all the more challenging as a result of climate change. Agricultural biodiversity -- like that locked inside the potato seeds being deposited here today -- is essential to facing these challenges, by helping us develop better, more resilient crops."

Marie Haga, Crop Trust
"Today's deposit represents an important chapter in the global campaign to preserve our crop diversity forever and provides a perfect example of how in situ conservation and ex situ preservation can work together for the good of all. We are absolutely delighted to welcome the Director-General of the FAO and our esteemed colleagues from Peru and Costa Rica to the Seed Vault today, for this hugely significant event."

Hanne Maren Blaafjelldal, State Secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food
"I am very proud that 40% of the crop diversity that are stored in the world's gene banks by now is safeguarded in the Seed Vault. These seeds may be of crucial importance for global food production in the future."

Alejandro Argumedes, ANDES
"This kind of international collaboration is vital for all of our futures.  These seeds, and The Potato Park farmers who are the innovators and leaders of their preservation, have been on a remarkable journey - travelling over 11,000 kilometres from the mountains of Peru to Svalbard.  Asociación ANDES is proud to have played its part."

Notes for editors


  • Achieving food security for all is at the heart of FAO's efforts - to make sure people have regular access to enough high-quality food to lead active, healthy lives.
  • FAO's three main goals are: the eradication of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition; the elimination of poverty and the driving forward of economic and social progress for all; and, the sustainable management and utilization of natural resources, including land, water, air, climate and genetic resources for the benefit of present and future generations.

The Crop Trust

  • Is an essential funding element of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, adhered to by 133 countries worldwide.
  • Spearheaded the biggest biological rescue operation ever of nearly 80,000 crop varieties while working with more than 100 institutions in more than 80 countries. As well as national governments, it has a number of high-profile supporters, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Together with the Government of Norway and the NordGen Genebank, manages and funds the ongoing work of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a safe and secure vault for 860,000 samples of crops from all over the world.

The International Treaty

  • Is a crucial legal instrument in the fight against hunger and poverty, particularly in an era of climate change affects food production.
  • Makes easier the exchange of seeds and other building blocks of the genetic diversity of the world's food crops, stimulating research.
  • Has created a global genepool for food security under the direct control of all 135 Contracting Parties with 1.6 million samples of genetic material that facilitate research for major important crops including maize, rice, wheat and cassava, among others.
  • Helps support projects, such as the Parque de la Papa (Potato Park) through its unique Benefit-Sharing Fund (BSF), a donor-driven fund.

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