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A Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean will soon be playing a key role in safeguarding global food production in the event of war or natural disasters.

The Norwegian government is going to dig an artificial cave deep inside a frozen mountain, and equip it with ventilation equipment to keep the temperature inside at minus 10-20 degrees Celsius.

Seeds from the world's crops will be collected by the Global Crop Diversity Trust and stored there.

Cary Fowler, the trust's executive secretary, told SciDev.Net that the seed bank will house about three million packages, each containing hundred of seeds from a different crop variety.

"It will have the capacity to store samples of every crop variety we think exists now, plus have room to add new collections," he says.

The facility on the island of Svalbard, to be completed in 2007, "will provide an extra and very robust layer of security in case the material in other seed banks is lost," says Fowler.

There are more than 1,500 seed banks worldwide but, according to Fowler, only 35-40 meet international standards and many are in areas of political upheaval, frequent natural disasters or other factors that leave them vulnerable to damage or loss.

In recent years, the national seed banks of Afghanistan and Iraq were destroyed during wars in those countries (see Seed bank raises hopes of Iraqi crop comeback).

The project is especially important for developing countries that lack the capacity to create effective seed banks.

"This provides a free service for developing countries and insurance that genetic diversity that matters to them will be preserved," says Fowler.

Duplicates of the Southern African Development Community's seed collections are already being stored in an existing facility on Svalbard and will be moved to the new one when it is completed.

The sub-zero conditions on Svalbard, which is covered in permafrost, mean it will be easier to store live seeds under optimal conditions.

"Even if the [ventilation] equipment failed, it would be months before the temperature inside rose even to the minus 3.5 degrees of permafrost," says Fowler.