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Beyond Thundervault

Illustration of scientist holding wheat

28 September 2015

Luigi Guarino 

The God Particle and the Doomsday Vault: I was half expecting the divine connection that could be read into those names to be ecstatically seized upon during the recent media hysteria over the unveiling of the Higgs boson. And dreading it. How would I field the inevitable questions about the relative value to humanity of these two cold, rock-hewn mountain tunnels?

That nothing came of it is largely due to the fact that the Higgs’ celestial cognomen seems, surprisingly, to have fallen out of favour of late. I wish I could say the same about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault’s own heavenly handle. It looks as if that is going to stick, alas. Makes one wonder, in awe and envy, how one’s physicist colleagues managed the minor miracle of dissuading the media from using such a wonderfully catchy, though no less silly, name as the God Particle after it had already pretty much caught on.

Yes, silly. The Higgs may give matter mass, but it doesn’t explain everything; it’s important all right, but just one fundamental particle among many. And the seed samples stored in the Vault were never supposed to jump-start a global return to industrial agriculture after the devastations of alien invasion, virus-induced zombification, Mayan calendrical glitch, asteroid strike or Biblical flood redux.

No, those seed samples in Svalbard are no more — and no less — than backup safety duplicates of the collections of crop diversity maintained in more “normal”, and more fragile, genebanks around the world. They are there in case something bad happens to a genebank, as it unfortunately sometimes does, not to mitigate planetary calamity. We’re talking Typhoon Maxine sadly taking out a roomful of seed samples here, not Mad Max roaming a blighted post-Armageddon wasteland inhabited by wild-eyed mutants bent on establishing organic homegardens and maybe even, one day, praise be, a neighbourhood farmers’ market. Calling it the Doomsday Vault oversells it rather, like one of those Medieval relics which turned out to be the bones of a sheep, rather than a saint. So unnecessary. So silly.

But hang on. Even the more optimistic carbon dioxide emission scenarios lead to predictions for future climates in many parts of the world that fall little short of what the summer version of the nuclear winter would look like. That will hammer crop production mercilessly, the models show, particularly in southern Africa and South Asia. And on top of that there will probably be new plagues and pestilences…

To adapt to the new conditions, some changes could be made in agricultural practices, of course, and there are some heroically resilient crops out there. But if we are to avert an agricultural apocalypse, we are going to have to breed most crops to cope with the hell they’ll find themselves in. The raw material for doing that is in the world’s genebanks, and increasingly nowhere else. Yet genebank funding is in many cases inadequate and precarious, and getting less secure. And accidents do happen. The Vault is safe from most sources of harm, and does its job on a shoestring, guaranteed in perpetuity, if not eternally, by the Crop Trust’s endowment.

Suddenly, that silly name doesn’t seem so silly after all, does it? Congratulations to the physicists on nailing their God Particle. But I’ll take my tunnel over theirs any day, and you can call it whatever you want.

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