ardly anything grows on Svalbard. In this Arctic archipelago, the permafrost is 1,000ft deep, the nearest tree grows 600 miles to the south, and the sun does not rise for four months of the year. But it is on this frozen, barren outpost that the future of mankind's food supply depends.
Today sees the inauguration of the Svalbard global seed vault, a top-security repository that will house batches of seeds from nearly every variety of food crop on the planet, such as wheat, rice or maize. The aim is to protect them in case of a global catastrophe. "It is the last line of defence against the extinction of our agricultural diversity," says Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Diversity Crop Trust (GDCT), the brain behind the project. "People are aware of the extinction of the dinosaurs, but they don't know that we are currently experiencing a mass extinction of our crop diversity."
According to Fowler, maintaining agricultural diversity is essential to protect our food supply. "We need [it] to help farmers and to help agriculture adapt to climate change, pests and diseases, droughts, and whatever demands we're going to have make of agriculture, including feeding more people."
"If we only cultivate the same variety of wheat, a disease can easily wipe it out. It has happened before," adds the 58-year-old US scientist, pointing out the blight that ravaged northern Europe's potato crops in the 1840s - and contributed to the great Irish famine.
Preserving crop diversity is becoming increasingly complex with global warming. It is going to be "the biggest thing ever thrown at our agricultural system", reckons Fowler. "It will create new climate conditions, to which plants will have to adapt quicker than ever before.
"We think we will be seeing concrete effects for which we will need new varieties of agricultural crops within the next twenty years. We're going to need that crop diversity more and more to be able to adapt," he says.
So to protect the planet's crops, a £4.7m refrigerated warehouse has been built inside a mountain overlooking Longyearbyen, a mining community of about 2,000 souls. It has been dubbed the "doomsday vault".
From the outside the vault looks like the perfect lair for a 007 villain. The entry, a narrow triangular portal made of concrete and steel, shoots out of the mountainside and offers spectacular views over Svalbard's snow-capped mountains and the Arctic Sea.
Doomsday Seed Vault
Inside, a 120m reinforced concrete tunnel gently slopes into the heart of the mountain towards three chambers, each measuring about 1,500 cubic metres. The seeds will be stored at –18C to prevent them from germinating. They will be contained in grey envelopes made of polyethylene and aluminium to protect them from air and moisture. The envelopes are stored in corrugated plastic boxes, up to 400 envelopes per box, on metal shelves.
At today's ceremony, the first 250,000 samples will be placed in the vault, with more on their way. It is estimated there are 2-3m unique varieties of crops in the world.
Should a variety of crop disappear, a sample could be taken out of the vault and sent to the gene bank it belongs to. It could then be germinated - and the crop reconstituted.
The Svalbard seed vault is not the first seed bank in the world. There are at least 1,500 of them worldwide. But some of the existing seed banks are vulnerable, and this is the first attempt to build a complete collection. "I don't think there is a single seed bank in the world that is securely funded," reckons Fowler. "None have secure multi-year budgets. Many are located in dangerous places in the world. All would be vulnerable to certain kinds of standard risks, such as fire, natural disasters; that type of thing." The seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, were looted and destroyed, and most of the seed collections of the Philippines's National Plant Genetic Resources Laboratory were obliterated during a typhoon two years ago.
A backup was needed, and this is why Svalbard was chosen. The cold keeps the seeds at constant freezing temperature; the islands are isolated; it is far away from the troubles of the world; instead "we have a friendly, stable and well-respected government with Norway [which has sovereignty over Svalbard]," reckons Fowler. "I can't think of a better location."
Norway also financed the construction of the vault. The GDCT will take charge of the £63,000 yearly operating costs. Britain is an indirect contributor too: it is providing £10m to the trust's overall budget between 2007 and 2011 - the largest contribution by any country.
So from today, the world's food supply should be a little safer. For Fowler, "this is an insurance policy for the most valuable natural resource on earth".