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Seed Security: A Look Inside the Doomsday Vault

Words by
November 10, 2016
The mention of a doomsday vault probably conjures up images of an enormous panic room ready to protect inhabitants from a zombie takeover or apocalyptic alien invasion. And yes, that’s almost exactly what we’re talking about, except this doomsday vault doesn’t hold people, but rather the key to human civilisation: seeds. On a remote island in Norway, nestled into layers of permafrost and sandstone rock, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault houses 864,309 seed samples at -18 °C. “The ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply,” claims The Global Crop Diversity Trust, the managing body of the Vault.

Seed banks aren’t new to the world, as scientists, agriculturalists and, most importantly, farmers have been saving and collecting seeds throughout time. But starting in the early 1900s organised action to preserve seeds for the future meant the arrival of official seeds banks, with the first one being in Russia. The idea was to retain and catalogue the particular genetic information stored in seeds in a way that would ensure their safety even in uncertain times. Conflicts, natural disasters, inevitable climate change, and genetic contamination were all drivers in creating seed safety nets, otherwise known as banks, where copies of seeds could be kept safe and accessible in the wake of catastrophe.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault
photo © Svalbard Global Seed Vault
And already a demand for such safekeeping is clear. The Svalbard Vault is a community back-up for the rest of the 1,7000 seed vaults scattered around the world. It is the largest seed bank with deposits coming from any of the various seed banks around the world. Svalbard was built to accommodate 4.5 million varieties of crops. Each variety contains on average 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds may be stored in the Vault.

In 2015, the Svalbard Vault saw its first retrieval of seeds. Years of civil disputes in Syria compromised seeds of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), but as luck would have it, ICARDA had previously sent 350 boxes of duplicate seeds to Svalbard. So in September of 2015, a request for 128 boxes with 38,073 seeds was answered by Svalbard and seeds were delivered to new ICARDA genebanks in Morocco and Lebanon.

Svalbard was built to accommodate 4.5 million varieties of crops. Each variety contains on average 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds may be stored in the Vault.
Yet not all seeds from every country have made the trip up to the far north. There are countries and organisations which still have yet to contribute to the seed backup vault. Together with Genesys, The Crop Trust has helped create a global portal of seeds that houses information on over 2.8 million plant samples found in various seed banks around the globe. This means that only around 30% of catalogued seeds around the world have been deposited in Svalbard. In addition, not all seeds can be stored effectively in the Vault. The conditions are only optimal for some seeds, but crops like bananas, apples, potatoes and other tubers need their own specific state for conservation.

While the number of seeds represented in the Vault seems high, there are still many varieties that are not represented and The Crop Trust wants to change that. At the moment, the only cost to those storing seeds in the Vault is the shipment of the seeds and even so The Crop Trust offers financial aid to qualifying organisations to cover these costs. As of 2015, the Crop trust has an endowment of $170 million but is working to reach its goal of $850 million. With an endowment of that size, interest on the endowment could potentially cover the $34 million a year needed to sustain the operations of the Vault. The Crop Trust hopes to eradicate any financial concerns that would inhibit local seed banks from depositing.
But isolated in the freezing cold with its own team of technicians and security, the Vault is far removed from the global conversation around seeds and food security, and the concerns of individuals and organisations about ownership and stewardship in seed protection. There’s a constant clash around how to best protect biodiversity, and it comes from two differing opinions on how to save seeds: ex-situ or in-situ conservation.

The Vault in Norway is the prime example ex-situ conservation. This means it is centralised conservation, out of place (seeds are held in locations away from their origins) and completely biological in scope. The seed in these locations is preserved as an object, rather than a living organism. It is valued for its genetic material, to be used, studied, perhaps manipulated down the road, but not as a life-form of its own. There’s no doubt for the need for conservation of this sort, as it provides a safe, controlled environment for seed storage, something hard to come by across the globe, but it’s a costly method.

As biodiversity takes the stage as a main player in the goals for a sustainable future, seed conversation is most certainly going to spark international debate. The FAO estimates that the global food supply depends on just around 150 plant species, less than 3 percent of the quarter million plant varieties that could be available for agriculture. And of those 150, just 12 make up three-quarters of the world’s food. As we let plants go uncultivated, and rely on fewer species, we risk severe loss of biodiversity and the accompanying so-called “genetic erosion.” It’s this danger that brings us to the farthest reaches of the world where the Svalbard Seed Bank and its governing body, The Crop Trust, take one sort of stance against biodiversity loss.