On the frozen archipelago of Svalbard, halfway between the north of mainland Norway and the North Pole, is the Global Seed Vault.
This inhospitable but breathtaking landscape is home to the ultimate storage solution designed to safeguard the seeds of the world’s most important crops.
Constructed in 2008 and run as a joint initiative between Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture, the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen), the Vault is used by gene banks, governments, universities and research facilities from every continent. If their own collections are compromised, if there is mass crop failure due to disease, if food supply chains are disrupted by conflict – or should there be any other doomsday scenario from zombie apocalypse to asteroid impact – the Global Seed Vault could be humanity’s best hope for survival.
Stored 130 metres deep inside a mountain are more than a million frozen seeds, kept at a chilled -18C. They represent more than 5,000 plant species with many more varieties of each (for example 40,000 types of bean, 156,000 kinds of wheat).
Svalbard was chosen as the perfect location because its cold climate means that even if power fails, seeds should be kept frozen by the surrounding permafrost. Its remoteness also makes it especially secure. The complex is protected by the Norwegian government agency Statsbygg and any trespassers might also have to contend with Svalbard’s population of polar bears, which outnumber human residents. Although they tend to keep far away from this part of Svalbard, pawprints have been found nearby in the past.
“You never know…” warns Åsmund Asdal.
If the Global Seed Vault is an ark to preserve life on Earth then Åsmund Asdal is its Noah.
Seed Vault Co-ordinator since 2015, Asdal is matter-of-fact in the way you’d want the potential saviour of the human race to be.
“It’s like a black box,” he says about the Seed Vault’s role. “One of the things you should do if you have some valuable papers is have a copy. Gene banks have seed collections that are very valuable but vulnerable if they are only in one place. For security they keep copies in Svalbard.”
New deposits are made up to six times annually, with around four to six new gene banks adding to the project each year.
“We are in touch with gene banks all over the world,” Asdal explains. “We give them the information they need. We inform them about options for depositing seeds. We organise the agreements and formal procedures. We organise the shipment of seeds from the gene banks to Svalbard and when the seeds arrive we bring the seeds into the Seed Vault. I am responsible for all these operations.”
This period is the busiest for Asdal and his team. Today [Tuesday February 25], representatives from dozens of gene banks around the world have travelled to Svalbard to make the biggest mass deposit since the Seed Vault’s opening.
Longyearbyen, three kilometres from the Vault, is the largest settlement on Svalbard, feeling like an outpost on the edge of the Earth. In the town’s cultural centre, Kulturhuset, international experts very literally leading the field of crop diversity and food security have come together for a day of talks and networking at the Svalbard Seed Summit. The theme: ‘Genetic diversity for more resilient food systems,’ exploring what measures need to be taken to safeguard crops in the face of the climate crisis.
Asdal presents the findings of long-term experiments he is conducting.
“We have what we call the 100-year experiment. We put seeds of Nordic crops in there in 1986 and every fifth year we take some out and test germination.
“Seeds do not last forever. You have to replace old seeds with new seeds now and then. That is what gene banks do. Some species can stay 50 years. Some species can stay 1,000 years. The knowledge about longevity is insufficient. That’s why we are having this experiment.”
After the summit, the delegation hop on to buses and drive along a windy road past dumpy reindeer on the slopes to the Vault, looming out of the darkness like a Bond villain’s lair. The outside temperature has slipped close to the -18C level inside the Vault, but the effects of the climate crisis can clearly be felt in this land of extremes. Today it was an incredibly unseasonable high of 1C.
The Svalbard Seed Vault has just undergone an extensive £16.7m building programme. The entrance tunnel was flooded by rainfall and melting permafrost in early 2017 after Svalbard experienced temperatures seven degrees higher than normal that winter. Since then they have made the tunnel watertight, as well as upgrading the cooling and security systems.
The need for renovations is a sign that climate change is happening faster than previously predicted, according to Erna Solberg, prime minster of Norway: “Now we have planned for worst-case scenarios in a better way,” she says.
Outside the Seed Vault, Solberg greets the gene bank representatives and speaks proudly of the part Norway is playing.
“I believe that more and more countries are seeing that to safeguard their genetics, seeds and biodiversity of their country it’s important that you store in different places,” she says.
“Biodiversity is part of climate change. We have to make sure we are planning for changes in the climate to make sure we can feed the people of the world in the future.”
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The name of each gene bank is read out like nations entering the Olympic arena, Solberg presents certificates, and storage boxes full of seeds are symbolically carried over the threshold.
Every seed carries its own story too. The Cherokee Nation is becoming the first indigenous American tribe to make a deposit. Their samples centre on the ‘three sisters’ crops – maize, squash and beans – varieties of which all predate European settlement. The majority of Cherokee communities today are in Oklahoma, where the corn can grow as high as an elephant’s eye, but the region is also prone to droughts, floods and tornadoes putting crops – and Cherokee heritage – at risk.
Many around the world are threatened by food insecurity, whether they live in areas affected by climate change or depend on a single, potentially vulnerable, crop.
The president of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, an advocate of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, has also travelled to Svalbard. At the summit earlier in the day he spoke of the precarious position many nations find themselves in: “We know that climate change has a significant impact on agriculture around the world. In my own country, where we are getting recurrent droughts and floods, the threat to traditional agriculture is real.”
Ghana is not an isolated case. Seventy per cent of Myanmar’s population, 80 per cent of Mali’s and 90 per cent of Burundi’s depend on agriculture to make a living, so researchers from these countries are depositing varieties of their most resilient crops. More than half the world’s population – around three billion people – rely on rice for 80 per cent of their dietary intake, so the International Rice Research Institute based in the Philippines has created test boxes of different varieties of rice that will be stored in Svalbard for between 10 and 40 years to test how well they’ll germinate in the future. Gene banks from India and Morocco are focussing on seeds that could prove crucial in the increasingly dry tropics, home to two billion people, 664 million of them impoverished and relying on the land.
The Global Seed Vault might seem like excessive preparation against scenarios that might never come to pass, but its collections have already proved vital. The seed collection of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) includes 80,000 samples stored in Svalbard, including many plants extinct in their natural habitats. Like other gene banks, the seeds in the Vault were simply a back-up. Unfortunately, ICARDA’s own storage facility was located in Aleppo and lost during the Syrian conflict in 2012.
“The government army captured the ICARDA premises in Syria,” Ahmed Amri of ICARDA says. “We do not know in which state the gene bank is now.
“The ICARDA gene bank in Aleppo held 141,052 accessions. In 2008, we started sending seed duplicates to Svalbard. Now, we have retrieved all duplicate seed samples stored and are regenerating about 30,000 of them each year.”
In five years ICARDA has already managed to take around 81,000 seed samples from its new bases in Morocco and Lebanon and redeposit them back in Svalbard.
Dr Chris Cockel from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is one of the representatives from the UK. Kew has its own storage facility, with even more seeds stored in the Millennium Seed Bank in Sussex than there are in Svalbard. But, as Cockel points out: “The important thing is not to put all your seeds in one basket.”
Although it couldn’t be revealed until the seeds were safely in Svalbard, the team from Kew branch has a special mission, here on his majesty’s secret service.
“We’re basically acting as the middle person between Svalbard and the Prince of Wales’ estate,” Cockel divulges.
Kew’s package contains 27 wild plant species from meadows at the Royal Gardens at Highgrove. His royal horticulturist said in a statement: “I am delighted that seeds from the wildflower meadows at Highgrove are to be safely stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault… It’s more urgent than ever that we act now to protect this diversity before it really is too late. Therefore the Seed Vault and seed banks around the world play a vital role in this critically important mission.”
What Prince Charles said to the plants themselves we don’t know.
Dr Chris Cockel leads a project at Kew studying how agriculture can adapt to climate change, drawing upon the wild relatives of 29 of the most critical food crops, from alfalfa to wheat.
“The material we’re getting from the Prince of Wales is in line with that,” Cockel says. “While they may not appear to be important for global food security, there are some species there, for instance wild carrot, that can be used in breeding programmes to make crops better at adapting to climate change and resist pests and diseases.”
Instead of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault being an insurance policy against Armageddon, Cockel says it’s more about preserving life and food as we know it. As well as storing seeds, gene banks around the world send samples to each other to further the research and ensure food security.
It’s more urgent than ever that we act now to protect this diversity before it really is too late
“The idea is to restore some of those important genetics that have been lost in the process of domestication. It’s not producing anything that’s genetically modified, it’s just using breeding methods that people have used for thousands of years to improve their crops.
“Previously most of the effort was put into producing high-yielding varieties and feeding more people. But that process has actually resulted in some of the crops becoming more vulnerable to pests and diseases as their genetic make-up has become narrower and narrower.
“Their wild relatives have survived, overlooked and often thought of as weeds. We’re not producing new super foods, but carrots that in 20 years’ time will look the same as carrots we have now. They might just be better adapted to a drier climate.”
So whether sudden global catastrophe or the worsening climate crisis comes to threaten all life on this planet, at least we know where to go to sow the seeds of recovery.