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Doomsday Insurance

Longyearbyen is a village in Svalbard, an archipelago north of the Arctic Circle between the North Pole and mainland Norway known mostly as the departure point for the expedition ships that cruise the icy waters in search of polar bears, whales, walruses, seals, reindeer, arctic foxes and birds.  Bob & I visited Longyearbyen in June 2022 as the jumping off point for an Arctic Circle familiarization trip. We stopped at several of the islands in the Svalbard Archipelago. June was the beginning of 9 straight weeks of 24 hours of sunlight. This small outpost has a vitally important resource important to the future of man­kind.  Located here is the Global Seed Vault, a collection of safety deposit boxes holding the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity, literally 13,000 years of agricultural history from around the world.

Technological advances over the past 50-60 years have enabled large scale crop production with increased crop yields, yet the biodiversity has decreased so substantially that only about 30 crops provide 95% of human food needs.  Only 10% of the rice varieties that China used in the 1950s are still used today, for example.  The U.S.  has lost over 90% of its fruit and vegetable varieties since the 1900s.  This monoculture nature of agriculture leaves food supplies more susceptible to threats such as diseases and drought.

The seeds lying in the vaults under deep freeze include both wild and old varieties, many of which are not in general use anymore.  They are still stored because their genetic diversity could provide the DNA traits needed to develop new strains for the challenges the world or a particular region will face in the future.  Those traits could enable scientists to develop more draught resistant varieties or find resistance to a new disease.  Climate change is a significant factor that is predicted to affect the food resources on the planet.  The seeds are not only vital to what we eat, but what we wear and how plants are important to the nature and ecosystems throughout the world.  Seeds can be frozen for centuries and still be effective.

Gene banks exist all over the world to network, collect, preserve, and share seeds to further agricultural research and develop new varieties.  This global network numbers nearly 2000 “Vaults”.  The Svalbard vault was opened in 2008, as a backup storage unit for all hundreds of thousands of varieties and came from the U.N.'s negotiation for an International Seed Bank.  Construction was funded by the Norwegian government, which operates the vault in partnership with the Crop Trust.  The goal is to find and house a copy of every unique seed that exists in the global gene banks; soon the vault will make room for its millionth variety.  It also works in tandem with those gene banks when their material is lost or destroyed. 

An example of the value of the back up plan is felt acutely by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), a global agricultural-research organization that was forced to flee its headquarters, just outside of Aleppo, Syria, because of the civil war in 2012, leaving behind one of the world’s most valuable collections of seeds, containing some of the oldest varieties of wheat and barley.  ICARDA re-established its base in both Morocco and Lebanon, borrowing from its safe deposit vault in Svalbard- the first ever withdrawal.  Some of the offspring of those seeds were recently returned to the vault for safekeeping.  For some countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, whose gene banks were destroyed by war, there was no back up in Svalbard.  In the Philippines a typhoon, followed by a fire, destroyed much of the seed bank there.

The Crop Trust is now raising money for an endowment fund to ensure that all the world’s gene-bank facilities are able to continue acting as guarantors of global biodiversity.

Svalbard is seen as the perfect location for the Seed Vault due to a number of factors:

  • Well-dried and vacuum-packed seeds of the most long-lived species stored at -18°C can stay viable for centuries.  The seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are kept at the same conditions (-18°C) as the depositing gene banks' original collections.  Permafrost and thick rock ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power.  The seeds are sealed in custom-made three-ply foil packages, which are sealed inside boxes and stored on shelves inside the Seed Vault.  The low temperature and moisture levels inside the Seed Vault ensure low metabolic activity, keeping the seeds viable for long periods of time.

  • Svalbard is the furthest north a person can fly on a scheduled flight, offering a remote location that is still accessible.

  • The Vault is built more than 100 meters into the mountain, offering it protection from outside threats.

  • The area is geologically stable and the humidity low.

  • The Vault is well above sea level, protected from ocean flooding and worst case scenario rising sea levels.

  • Permafrost offers natural freezing providing a fail safe and cost effective way to store the seeds.

The Seed Vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million varieties of crops.  Each packet of seeds consists of an average of 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds may be stored..

Currently, the Seed Vault holds more than 1.2 million seed varieties, originating from almost every country in the world.  These range from unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley and potato. 

The objective of the Seed Vault is to safeguard as much of the world’s unique crop genetic material as possible, while also avoiding unnecessary duplication.  The latest new contributors to the Seed Bank include Croatia, Albania, North Macedonia and Benin.

The seed boxes are stored under “black-box conditions,” meaning the depositors are the only ones who can withdraw their own seeds.  When seeds are deposited in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, their legal ownership is not transferred.  This means that a depositor who chooses to store seeds in the Seed Vault is still the owner of the seeds and the only one who can withdraw them from the Seed Vault.

In an age of heightened geopolitical tensions and uncertainty, the Svalbard vault is an unusual and hopeful exercise in international cooperation for the good of mankind.  Any organization or country can send seeds to it, and there are no restrictions because of politics or the requirements of diplomacy.  Red wooden boxes from North Korea sit alongside black boxes from the U.S.  Over on the next aisle, boxes of seeds from Ukraine sit atop seeds from Russia.  “The seeds don’t care that there are North Korean seeds and South Korean seeds in the same aisle,” Lainoff says.  “They are cold and safe up there, and that’s all that really matters.” (1)

(1)               Sources for this blog are excerpts from Time Magazine article by Jennifer Duggan 2024  Italicized content is a direct paragraph from the article.  Facts and statistics are from this article, as well as on line information from the Svalbard Seed Vault.

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