The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

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Far above the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, built into the side of a mountain which is permanently frozen, is humanity’s greatest insurance policy. 

There lie genetic backup copies for much of the world’s agricultural crops. 

These seeds are stored for a day which hopefully will never come.

Learn more about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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Civilization arose with the rise of agriculture. 

Agriculture required the domestication of seeds. As humanity advanced, we created new varietals of plants to meet our needs. The varietals are created by cross-breeding different strains of plants. They allowed for more hardy and fruitful plants which produced more food per acre, as well as being more resistant to drought and disease.

However, many of the original varietals which were used to create the modern versions have disappeared. You might think that this doesn’t matter. If we used the old varietals to make the new ones, then didn’t they serve their job?

Not exactly. Genetics in different varietals might be needed at a later time. They could have resistances to different pests or different attributes which might be needed, perhaps in different combinations, in the future. 

To rectify this problem, all around the world, countries have established seed banks. There are currently over 1,300 seedbanks on Earth. They are run by governments, universities, and corporations.

Most of them are dedicated to the preservation of local varietals and they work with local farmers and researchers. Think of them more as seed libraries than as seed banks. 

Some seed banks have more extensive collections. The Millennium Seed Bank located at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England is the largest such seed bank in the world. It currently holds over 2.4 billion seeds from over 40,000 wild species, representing over 10% of all the wild plant species in the world.

The seeds are in a nuclear blast-proof vault below the surface and are kept refrigerated at ?20 °Celcius or  ?4 °Farenheight.

This solution and the other seed banks around the world are fine, but what happens if something happens to them? 

This isn’t an idle concern. A seed bank in the Philippines burned down and then was destroyed by a flood. The seed bank in Afghanistan was destroyed by the Taliban and all of the seeds were scattered on the ground.

There are dozens of calamities and disasters which can befall a site. In addition to natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and tsunamis, there are civil emergencies such as wars, riots, famines, and electrical blackouts which could occur. Seeds are also susceptible to insects, mice, and good old fashion rotting. The biggest thread is just plain old budget cuts. If a country abandons its seed bank, what then happens?

During World War II, the world’s largest seed bank was located in Leningrad at the Institute of Plant Industry. During the siege of Leningrad, scientists barricaded themselves in the institute to protect the seeds. They had to protect the seeds not just from the Germans, but from the starving citizens of Leningrad, from rats, and even from themselves. 

They knew that the ability of the country to bounce back after the war was dependent on the preservation of the seeds. 

Several of the men died of starvation while being surrounded by bags of rice and wheat. 

The lessons from Leningrad, Afghanistan, and the Philippines were that another layer of protection was needed. 

If you think of the genes in seeds as data, then a seed bank is like backing up your data on an external hard drive in your house. That’s fine, but what happens if your house burns down. 

You need off-site storage for your data. 

In this vein, agriculturalist Cary Fowler hatched the idea of the creation of a global seed vault. This global vault would be the off-site backup for the world’s genetic seed data. 

The island of Svalbard, far north of the Arctic Circle proved to be the perfect place for the seed vault. 

For starters, it’s extremely remote. There are few people around who, in the event of a disaster, could potentially raid the vault. Norway is also a stable country, with little immediate threat of civil turmoil.

Because of its latitude, there are no pests on the island. There are no insects or rodents which could possibly eat the seeds. 

The climate is also cold and relatively dry.

The location of the vault on the island is located on a sandstone mountain 130 meters above sea level. This ensures that it will not be subject to future sea-level change or tsunamis. The location is also very seismically stable, meaning the threat of earthquakes is very low.

The vaults are 120 meters inside the mountain. They are designed to be waterproof, and the design is such that water freeze or drain before it reached the main storage area. 

The seeds are all stored in aluminum, heat-sealed bags that are waterproof. It is believed that the seeds contained in the vault will be able to survive centuries to millennia, depending on the species of the seed. 

Ground was broken on the vault in 2006 and it was completed in 2008. The entire project was funded by the Norwegian government. 

The vault is available at no cost to any country which has signed the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. All of the seeds stored in the facility are the property of whoever made the deposit.

To date, there are over 1,000,000 seed samples from 87 seedbanks in 66 countries. 

In 2015, the first-ever withdrawal from the vault took place. Because of the Syrian civil war, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas which was located in Aleppo, Syria had to move its operations to Beruit. However, they were not able to bring most of their seeds with them. 

The seeds placed in the vault allowed them to restock their seed bank, now located in Beruit. The seeds were planted, and the seeds from the new plants were harvested and sent back to the vault. 

There is still a lot of room in the vault and there are still many species that still arent’ represented. However, since the vault opened in 2008, the number of seeds in the vault has slowly increased. 

So, we can all take some solace that in the event of war, pestilence, blight, or any other natural disaster, our ability to bring back the crops which sustain our world will not be lost.