Hidden deep within an icy mountain, on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, lies World Seed Bank, which some call ‘The Ark of Biodiversity’ and others ‘The Doomsday Crypt’ and ‘The Doomsday Vault’. This global seed bank is the largest reserve of crop diversity on the planet. Treasure the seeds that could save a post-apocalyptic world. A lifeline for humanity; or, as some scientists have put it, ‘the most important room in the world’.
This underground facility, built to withstand the test of time and natural or man-made disasters, it already contains more than a million seed samplesfrom almost every country in the world: 30,000 years of agriculture.
Although there are more than 1,700 genebanks on the planet with collections of food crops in custody, many of them are vulnerable and exposed not only to natural disasters and wars, but also to avoidable adversities, such as lack of financing or poor management. .
But what happens to plant species when farmers stop planting them? They fall into disuse and eventually become extinct. Y the loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of any life form.
With the idea of safeguard all plant biodiversity on Earth Svalbard Global Seed Vault was born, a ‘bunker’ with the capacity to store 4.5 million varieties of crops, each of which will contain an average of 500 seeds, so up to 2.25 billion can be stored of seeds.
In the event of a cataclysmic crop failure due to, say, a virulent new disease, or if all other specimens of a given crop were destroyed, the world could count on the existing collection in this ‘vegetable noah’s ark‘ to provide the source material for new varieties.
The World Seed Bank was built disaster proof by the Government of Norway. The late Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai starred in the first deposit, a box of rice seeds, in February 2008.
The facility is managed and operated in partnership between the Scandinavian country’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food, the Nordic Center for Genetic Resources (NordGen) and the international organization Crop Trust.
Norway spent 8.3 million euros on the construction of the World Seed Bank and then invested some 20 million more on the technical upgrade of the facility, since suffered recurring water leaks in the entrance tunnel (not affecting the seeds) due to melting caused by climate change. The annual cost of running the Seed Vault is approximately one million euros.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened its doors just a few days ago for the first seed deposit of the year: 10 genebanks from around the world deposited 39 boxes containing 20,443 samples, bringing the total count to a 1,145,862 seeds. Genebanks from Australia, Germany, Morocco, New Zealand, Nordic countries, Romania, Slovakia, Sudan and Uganda participated.
7,055 samples of Spanish origin
So far almost a hundred depositors have contributed seeds. The number of species is around 6,000, of more than 1,100 genera. The largest contribution made so far was recorded in February 2020, when 35 gene banks from all continents deposited seeds in the Svalbard World Seed Bank, whose inside is kept at -18ºC.
What kind of seeds are in the ‘ark of biodiversity’? Almost everything: about 140,000 different samples of wheat varieties; 150,000 samples of rice; 70,000 samples of barley; and between 10,000 and 20,000 samples of different types of potatoes, peas, sorghum and many other crops. Which there are not, nor will there be, they are genetically modified seeds.
Are there Spanish seeds in the ‘Doomsday Crypt’? Well yes: 7,055 unique samples originating in Spain, although none of them provided by the Spanish Government. But it has entered 2.63 million dollars (2.32 million euros) into the Crop Trust Endowment Fund.
Although the Vault is owned by Norway, the countries and institutions that contribute the seeds remain its owners and all the seeds are sealed under ‘black box’ conditions: no one except the depositors can access or remove them from the gigantic silo. Storage is free.
Inside the ‘doomsday vault’ there are no conflicts: the boxes are stacked in the order they are received. So the seeds from North Korea are next to those from the United States, and those from Ukraine are very close to those from Russia. Any seed is accepted as a priceless biological treasure. The goal is that all terrestrial food biodiversity can be conserved forever.The safest place on Earth
The location of the Vault was decided by considering safest on earth. Furthermore, when governments started talking about the danger climate change poses to crops, Norway emerged as one of the only places still trusted by both developing and industrialized countries.
So if an agreement was to be reached on building a safe haven for seeds, Norway was the best option. Hence, politically distant governments such as Washington and Pyongyang agreed to deposit backup copies of their most precious plant resources in Svalbard.
While climate change is a serious concern for sustainable food production around the world, the World Seed Bank itself is not affected by it, nor do its gatekeepers expect it to be affected in the future. The seeds will keep for centuries. There are reasons for hope:
–The Seed Vault was built 130 meters above sea levelwhich ensures that the floor of the installation will remain dry even if the two poles melt.
–The three seed chambers are carved into a mountain of solid rock and the tunnel leading to the chambers is made of waterproof concrete.
–Permafrost conditions in the chambers imply a lower energy requirement for mechanical cooling to -18ºC.
–The vault is impervious to volcanic activity, earthquakes, radiation and sea level riseand in the event of a power failure, the permafrost (permanently frozen layer of ice) outside will act as a natural refrigerant.
Crops at risk of extinction
“As the pace of climate change and biodiversity loss increases, there is a new urgency around efforts to save food crops at risk of extinction”, says Stefan Schmitz, CEO of the Crop Trust.
“The large scope of the February 2020 seed deposit reflects global concern about the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss on food production, but more importantly, it demonstrates a growing global commitment of institutions and countries that have made deposits and, by extension, of the world, for the conservation and use of crop diversity”, adds Schmitz.
Plans to build the Seed Vault began in the 1980s, but there was no international agreement to regulate the area or to support such a large effort, so the project fell by the wayside.
It was in 2004, with the entry into force of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, that there was finally a good legal basis for the creation of the Vault.
After it was decided to build the Vault in Svalbard, due to its remote location and the permafrost that covers it –seeds must be kept frozen to remain viable–, the Government of Norway studied the possible locations and finally decided to build the vault in the bowels of a mountain.
So far, only once have seeds been removed from the Vault: in October 2015, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), retrieved its seeds due to the escalation of the war in Syria, which was putting Aleppo Seed Bank in danger.
Project website: https://seedvault.nordgen.org/