Hidden deep in the permanently frozen mountainscape of the world’s northernmost inhabited place, lies the ultimate agricultural failsafe for cities and populations around the globe: a remote vault with the capacity to store billions of seeds.
A sharp decline in seed biodiversity – largely due to the fact that three-quarters of the world’s food supply comes from just 12 plant species, including major staples like rice, wheat and maize – has made preservation of seed and crop diversity more important than ever.
The vault is really interesting, but at the same time it’s essentially a natural freezer in the side of a mountain.
What happens to those unused plant species when farmers stop planting them? They fall out of use and, eventually, become extinct. The world decided to address seed extinction in 2004, when the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture was established. The treaty lays the groundwork for not only conserving crop diversity, but for making seeds available for agricultural use. More than 1,700 genebanks – many of which have been operating for decades – hold seed collections for safekeeping. But, because nearly any building is prone to natural disasters, human catastrophes or other failures, they needed a backup location to protect seed duplicates if the worst-case scenario were ever to become reality.
Enter the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Funded by the government of Norway and operated in part by Norway, the Nordic Genetic Resources Center and the Crop Trust – an independent organization created to help support and build a global system of crop conservation – the vault was opened in 2008 and immediately started storing backup seed collections.
“Plans to construct the Seed Vault started as early as the 1980s, but they didn’t have international agreement to regulate the area or to support such a huge endeavor, so things fell by the wayside. With the coming-into-force of the international treaty in 2004, that set a good legal foundation for the creation of the vault,” says Cierra Martin, partnerships and communications assistant at the Crop Trust.
After deciding to construct the vault in Svalbard – perfect due to its remote location and permafrost, as the seeds need to be kept frozen in order to remain viable – the government of Norway scoped out locations, eventually deciding to build the vault into a mountain.
“The vault is really interesting, but at the same time it’s essentially a natural freezer in the side of a mountain,” Martin explains. “You enter into a small holding chamber of sorts, then you walk through another door into this long tunnel – it’s about 120 meters long – that slopes downward deeper into the mountain. At the end of the tunnel, there are three separate vault rooms. Each has the capacity to hold over 1 million seed samples.”
To date, there are only 880,837 seed samples in the vault, filling only three-quarters of the first vault room. The Crop Trust expects to have to start cooling down the second vault room for seed storage within the next couple of years.
Though dozens of institutions have deposited seeds at the vault, there has only ever been one withdrawal. In October 2015, ICARDA, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, retrieved their seeds due to the escalating war in Syria – a human-caused disaster, one of the exact reasons the vault was created.
“The material itself wasn’t in danger in Aleppo, but [ICARDA] couldn’t carry out their routine genebank operations,” Martin says. “Genebanks do two major things: They conserve materials from being lost in the wild, and they share that material with users around the world. The problem was that they couldn’t share the materials because of the conflicts going on in Syria, meaning their center had basically just become a seed museum.”
Though the vault has existed for less than a decade, it has long-term plans. Currently, the Crop Trust is raising an endowment with a goal of US$850 million to fund a global system of crop diversity conservation, part of which will go to fund the vault in perpetuity. The idea is that if something happens to the 1,700 genebanks, the world would be able to agriculturally repopulate and maintain crop diversity thanks to the backup collections at the Seed Vault.
While the Crop Trust acknowledges that the likelihood of the need for the “doomsday vault,” as it’s often nicknamed, is small, it’s a necessary resource for that looming, ever-present “if.”
“If something happens to a genebank, which is conserving precious seed material, it could mean the loss of an entire collection. And the loss of a crop variety is just like an animal going extinct in the wild,” Martin says. “When you’ve already lost your first [seed] collection or you’ve lost your first backup collection, the vault is the final fail-proof option keeping this material from extinction.”