MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Seventy-five boxes of seeds were carried down a red carpet today on a Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean headed for cold storage - really cold storage - deep inside a mountain in a vault built into the permafrost.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which opened today, is designed to safeguard more than 2 billion seeds in case of natural or manmade disasters.
The vault is owned by Norway. The collection of seeds is funded by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
Cary Fowler is that group's executive director, and he joins me from the town of Longyearbyen. And Mr. Fowler, this sounds like a big day red carpet and luminaries there for the opening of this seed vault.
Mr. CARY FOWLER (Executive Director, Global Crop Diversity Trust): Yes, indeed. We had the prime minister of Norway and the president of the European Commission. We had a Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, from Africa. Quite a big day for agriculture, frankly.
BLOCK: And the unofficial name for this fault is the Doomsday Vault.
Mr. FOWLER: That's right. It's rather sensationalized, but it wasn't the main motivating factor in designing the seed vault. We know that certain gene banks have, in the past, gotten in the way of conflicts. So, sometimes, doomsday comes really quickly. But we're losing a lot of diversity on a daily basis. We have varieties of wheat or rice or tomatoes that for various reasons simply become extinct.
The really important thing about it is that when a crop variety becomes extinct, we lose the ability to use any unique trait that it might have in the future. So, if it turns out that one of those crop varieties held the key to resistance to particular insect, pest or disease, or is really heat tolerant and could be used in the future to help us adapt to climate change, then it's sort of tough luck.
BLOCK: Well, let's talk about the physical structure of the vault itself. I've seen images of the entrance. It looks like a big metallic fin jetting out of the mountain. What does it look like when you go inside.
Mr. FOWLER: When you open the front door, you're looking down a corridor that's about 130 yards long. It's going straight into the mountain. At the end of that, it's sort of a very large area. And off of that are three vault rooms behind air-locked doors. And each one of those rooms is capable of storing about one and a half million small packages of seeds.
BLOCK: And how cold is it in there?
Mr. FOWLER: It's below zero all the time. And at that temperature, the seed that we're going to put in there can last for a long, long time. I mean, some of the types of crops that will remain viable for the shortest period of time are things like lettuce, which will stay healthy for maybe 50 years. But at the other extreme, there are experimental results that seem to indicate that sorghum, which is a grain crop that originated in Africa, the seeds of which in those conditions, we could safely store for nearly 20,000 years.
BLOCK: Mr. Fowler, how many people will be working at this vault up there in the Svalbard islands?
Mr. FOWLER: Physically, on site, none.
Mr. FOWLER: We'll monitor all the happenings inside the vault electronically. We do have security and other people that would be necessary to run the vault, but they'll be in the village of Longyearbyen and can come out as needed. But the operating cost per year will probably about $150,000 and we think that's about the cheapest insurance policy anybody can imagine for the world's most valuable natural resource.
BLOCK: Well, Mr. Fowler, we're going to let you get back to that big Arctic party going on up there. Thanks for talking with us.
Mr. FOWLER: Yes. You're welcome. Thank you.
BLOCK: Cary Fowler is executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, speaking with us from Longyearbyen, Norway, about the opening today of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.