N. Korea's missiles and food security

Apr 28, 2016, 3:18 PM EDT
Global seed vault. (Source: Martyn Smith/flickr)
Global seed vault. (Source: Martyn Smith/flickr)

When North Korea launches nuclear missiles of any kind, thoughts of doomsday may not be far behind, Pyongang's track record for failed attempts notwithstanding. Thursday's failed launch of two test fires of intermediate-range missiles is no exception, in part because it comes so soon after a failed missile launch in mid-April. U.S. President Barack Obama said this week that the U.S. is repositioning its missile defense system in reaction to the "low-level" threats coming from North Korea. Indeed, low-level or not, nuclear tests by an isolated, authoritarian government, headed by the volatile Kim Jong-un, are right to worry global leaders. More specifically, they also serve as an important reminder of the need for measures to preserve life should mass destruction occur, for example the creation and maintenance of seed vaults.

Take the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The facility, located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, houses duplicate samples of seeds held in other gene banks around the world. The Crop Trust, a non-profit which manages the vault, announced in mid-April that it had secured pledges totaling about $150 million — double its core funds. (The Crop Trust established the seed vault with funds from the Norwegian government and help from the Nordic Genetic Resource Center.)

The Svalbard Vault isn’t new; it opened in 2008. But its current capacities are being boosted by the increase in international interest from both private and public sectors amid broad concerns about global stability, terrorism, and climate change. (The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one notable supporter.) According to the Crop Trust, the Svalbard facility is one of 1,400 gene banks located in more than 100 countries around the world. These gene banks hold millions of varieties of seeds for future crops, but may also contain genetic material in the aim of preserving biodiversity. Still, even with millions of types of seeds, challenges to preserving various strains of life on Earth include temperature fluctuations and power sustainability. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault itself is designed to survive disasters such as nuclear war in its remote, freezing environment. And while seeds themselves won’t necessarily preserve human life should a global crisis occur, governments clearly see the value in conserving varieties of crops from all over the world. Countries including the U.S., Germany, and Australia have pledged millions of dollars to the Crop Trust in support of the seed bank.

Ironically, amidst renewed global attention to food security in the future, North Korea, seemingly hell-bent on reminding the world of the threat of nuclear catastrophe, is struggling to feed its people. This week, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that the country’s already-low food supply is set to deteriorate further as dry weather negatively impacts crop yields. Droughts and regional weather changes in East Asia have slashed the country's vital rice crop production. Another factor behind food insecurity: the government’s excessive spending on weapons. Perhaps Pyongang would be well served to substitute missiles for seeds.