Oh, I hate to think of German Johnson tomato seeds shivering in there!
In a week when Al Gore warned Congress that “The planet has a fever. If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor. . . You take action,” it’s comforting to know that even if our federal government allows the baby to burn up, vegetable gardeners need not lose hope.
There is alway the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is designed to rescue the agricultural heritage of humanity from complete disaster by preserving up to 3 million distinct varieties of crop seeds.
This is not a cheery Seedsavers Exchange rediscover-those-delicious-antique-beans kind of effort on an idyllic Iowa farm. This is an ugly bunker dug into the remote permafrost on an island 600 miles north of the Norway mainland. In this bunker, vegetable seeds may survive for a hundred years, grains for a thousand. And when the seeds threaten to go bad, they will be planted under controlled conditions to yield more seed. (How permanent the frost, of course, is another question. Let’s just hope the artificial refrigeration works, too.)
Though the vault, when it is completed this year, will attempt to house the entire panorama of genetically diverse food crops, it will not lend seeds to scientists or breeders. No, this particular pantry is not to be raided until doomsday. It’s designed to keep the human race from starvation, should we screw up the climate so completely that all our crops fail, or should we wither them with the radioactive fallout of a nuclear war, or should we completely muddle them with our genetic engineering.
Not exactly a cheerful mission, but it was the brainchild of an apparently charming and admirable man, plant scientist Bent Skovmand, who died last month. His New York Times obituary pointed out …
The vault was only part of Dr. Skovmand’s crusade to save and propagate the best of the best strains of valuable food plants. His mission, he often said, was ending hunger. He searched the world to discover and preserve lost strains of wheat and other crops and helped breed them into stronger, more disease-resistant strains.
Obviously, hunger is not the great problem in America today, but it’s impossible, post-Gore, to be sanguine any more about what’s coming.
So if we are going to completely mess up the natural world for generations to come, I like to think that my offspring still have some hopes of enjoying pole beans, arugula, lemon basil, patty pan squashes, Japanese eggplants, and heirloom tomatoes–at some point, maybe, when the baby’s forehead cools.