A Visit To The Doomsday Vault

Scott Pelley Visits One Of The World's Most Unique Seed Banks

CBS All Access
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The treasures that the vault was built to house came by plane and approached an airstrip at the base of the mountain nearby. What's in the boxes took 10,000 years to develop and 70 years to collect. Now they were loaded for the last mile to Fowler's frozen Fort Knox.

"This is the coldest place in the mountain. We wanted to take advantage of the naturally frozen temperatures down here. We wanted absolutely the coldest spot we could find," Fowler explains. "It's cold. It's getting colder actually…. And these are air locked doors. It keeps the cold air in."

Inside the boxes that came off the plane are millions of silver envelopes, containing seeds of everything from chickpeas to wheat.

Officially, the seed bank is the "Svalbard Global Seed Vault." It's built to warehouse backup copies of all the world's crops - 1.5 billion seeds - including everything from California sunflowers to ancient Chinese rice. If an asteroid strikes the earth, seeds to restart agriculture would come from the vault. But science fiction aside, the main purpose is to protect against a doomsday that is unfolding right now because the plants we've been eating for 10,000 years are going extinct.

"If you ask somebody 'How many kinds of apples are there?' They're going to say 'Well, there's red, there's green. There's yellow. There's Macintosh. There's Golden Delicious.' They're going to give you an answer like that," Fowler says.

"Maybe 25, I would guess," Pelley remarks.

"Good guess. But in fact, in the 1800s in the United States people were growing 7,100 named varieties of apples. 7,100 different varieties of apples that are catalogued," Fowler explains.

"And how many are there today?" Pelley asks.

"We've lost about 6,800 of those, so the extinction rate for apples varieties in the United States is about 86 percent," he explains.

Extinction exists in all crops. Estimates are that every day one crop strain disappears. And here's why: seeds used to be passed down through families. But today, farmers are planting mass-produced industrial seeds. The upside is more food. The downside is the family variety goes extinct.