What would happen if disease, global warming or invasive insects wiped out a nation's crops (as seems to be happening in Liberia right now)? Would vital crop species go extinct? Would farmers lose their livelihoods for good? Would people starve?

The Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome aims to prevent that from happening. The Trust announced this week (pdf) it is "on track to save from extinction 100,000 different varieties of food crops from 46 countries." By focusing on staple crops -- such as rare varieties of barley, wheat, rice, banana/plantain, potato, cassava, chickpea, maize, lentil, bean, sorghum, millet, coconut, breadfruit, cowpea and yam —the Trust hopes to preserve the world's crop biodiversity, and ultimately our food supply.

Trust Executive Director Cary Fowler said in a statement that the group has agreements in place with 49 genebanks in 46 countries to rescue some 53,000 of the 100,000 crop samples that its scientific experts have identified as endangered.

The crops will be stored at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, aka the "Doomsday Vault", a mountainside facility built by the government of Norway near the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, an icy group of islands nearly a thousand kilometers north of mainland Norway. The vault opened one year ago this week, and already houses a collection of 200 million seeds representing more than 400,000 unique species.

To mark the anniversary of the vault, experts on global warming and its effects on food production are gathering this week in Longyearbyen to discuss the threats climate change could pose to crop diversity and food production. Attendees include the authors of a study published last month in Science which warned that many regions will experience all-time high temperatures during critical crop-growing seasons by the end of this century. “This means that the vital importance of crop diversity to our food supply, which inspired the creation of the seed vault, is neither remote nor theoretical but immediate and real,” said the study's lead author David Battisti, a climate change expert at the University of Washington, in a statement.

How does this project compare to see banks around the world? "There are over 1,400 genebanks globally," says Luigi Guarino, Senior Science Coordinator for the Trust, who points out that the Svalbard Seed Vault is the only facility dedicated specifically to backing up crops. "This project focuses mainly on the 21 crops that are most important to global food security."

The government of Norway spent $9 million to build the vault, and has committed to fund the maintenance of the facility at an annual cost of $150,000. The vault is managed by NordGen, the genetic resource center of the Nordic countries, while the Trust funds its operation and management, and arranges transport of seeds from their home countries to the facility.

The long-term success of the project will depend upon donations from governments and individuals. The Trust hopes to build a $260 million endowment, which would fund its long-term operations. So far, it has raised more than $140 million, "though not all of this is for the endowment, but for urgent tasks such as rescuing endangered crop collections," says spokesperson Julian Laird.

Will the world financial crisis make this fundraising more difficult? A similar project, the Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex, United Kingdom, last month warned that new seed collections and ongoing research would have to stop if corporate donations continued to dry up. (As of April 2007, the bank had collected one billion seeds.) "There is no doubt that the world financial crisis will make fundraising much harder," says Laird. "However, it will also exacerbate the funding crisis in local genebanks around the world, making their collections even more vulnerable." Laird says the Trust has not yet experienced any funding problems, and "is designed to insulate genebanks from fickle trends in funding," but that this makes their own fundraising efforts even more urgent.

Beyond donations, the Trust identifies several ways individuals can help the project, including writing to government agencies and newspapers to help promote its efforts.

photo of chickpeas and lentils courtesy ICRISAT