Inside a mountain on an island halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole resides the largest collection and reflection of crop diversity in the world.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores seed samples of the world’s crops, duplicates of the samples stored in the world’s other seed banks. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million samples. Since each sample contains an average of 500 seeds, the total capacity is something like 2.25 billion seeds. Right now, around 860,000 seed samples are stored there, or between one-third and one-half of the seed diversity stored around the world. More than 150,000 distinct varieties of both rice and wheat, as well as hundreds of much less common plants, are represented. Priority is given, not surprisingly, to crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture. Almost every country in the world has deposited seeds there, although China and Japan haven’t yet joined in.
The Seed Vault is housed over 400 feet inside a mountain – “Platåberget,” or “plateau mountain” – on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, just over 800 miles from the North Pole. Cary Fowler, a conservationist who helped start the Vault, has said, “If you look at it, it’s a pretty simple facility. It’s a big tunnel.” It’s so cold at Svalbard that the seeds would be safe even if the refrigeration failed. There is also considerable permafrost, and little tectonic activity there. It’s at a high altitude, so flooding isn’t an issue, and the humidity is very low. The seeds are stored at just below zero Fahrenheit in foil packages, and should be viable for many centuries.
There are around 1,700 gene banks around the world that safeguard food crops. But not all of them are in the best of shape. The seeds are aging, and the technology they use is behind the times. Many of them are vulnerable to natural disasters, accidents, or even the disappearance of governmental funding. War can be an issue, too – the seed banks of both Afghanistan and Iraq have been lost that way, and those of the Philippines and Egypt have been damaged by fire and looters. In fact, due to the civil war in Syria, in 2015 the Svalbard Global Seed Vault authorized the first withdrawal of seeds in its history, to replace some lost at Aleppo’s seed bank (luckily, Aleppo had stored duplicates of some 80% of its holdings at Svalbard).
Conservationist Cary Fowler, with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), started the Seed Vault. When governments started thinking about the potential danger to crops, Norway was one of the few places still trusted by most nations. It was also willing to put up all of the $9 million needed to start the project. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault officially opened on February 26, 2008 with its first deposit, of rice seeds, delivered by Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Norway even provided for some art for the facility, in the form of the illuminated Perpetual Repercussion by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, which runs the length of the facility’s roof and down to the entryway, marking the location of the vault from a distance.
The Seed Vault is owned and administered by Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The Global Crop Diversity Trust provides financial support for the operation of the Seed Vault and, until recently, the transportation of seeds to the facility. NordGen, the Nordic Gene Bank, operate the facility and maintains a public database of the samples stored there. The seed vault functions like a safe deposit box, with the Vault owning the building but the depositor owning the seeds.
Food security is a challenge in developing countries. Crop diversity is key in developing plants that can withstand disease, pests, and changing climates. However, there has been some dispute about whether preserving crop diversity is best done by institutions like the Seed Vault or by working in the field with individual communities. Research, for instance, suggests that as much as 75% of global crop diversity is actually held by farmers around the world, most of them women.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is, in a sense, the world’s backup plan – or, to use more dramatic language, a “doomsday vault” – insurance against both catastrophic and incremental loss of the world’s crop diversity.