The Global Seed Vault’s mission is to ensure Earth’s biodiversity
This article was written by Lex Harvey and was published in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2022.
You’ll need to carry a rifle if you wish to visit the world’s biggest collection of agricultural diversity. Here on Norway’s wild and vast Svalbard archipelago, polar bears outnumber people — and you can never be too careful (though of course, killing one is strictly a last resort).
In the icy tundra of Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost town, few crops grow. But deep within its permafrost — layers of soil, gravel and sand, frozen in place — lay the keys to securing the world’s food supply, in the form of more than one million types of seeds.
Dubbed the “doomsday vault,” the Global Seed Vault has a certain scifi quality to it. The concrete structure jutting out of the hillside is built to withstand the most severe natural disasters, and even a nuclear bomb, according to its manufacturer. But at its core, the vault’s mission is quite simple.
“It’s just seed storage inside the mountain,” says Åsmund Asdal, the vault’s co-ordinator and only fulltime employee. Still, since it was built in 2008, the vault has acted as something of an insurance policy for Earth’s biodiversity, a role of increasing importance in a world ravaged by political instability, war and the urgent threat of climate change.
At 78 degrees N, about 1,000 kilometres away from the North Pole, you’d be hard pressed to find a more remote (yet still accessible) place to safeguard the world’s seeds. The vault sits just outside Longyearbyen, up the hill from the world’s northernmost commercial airport. For three months of the year, the vault resides in complete darkness, after the sun sets for the Arctic’s long polar night.
The seeds live in a chilled room, carved more than 100 metres into the rock, through a long tunnel and behind a large steel door that keeps out unwanted visitors. The vault is closed to the public, and its doors are only opened a few times a year to make way for new seeds. But the shimmering exterior, dressed in a design of steel and mirror shards by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, hints at the magic that lies inside.
The Global Seed Vault, which is operated by the Norwegian government and a German nonprofit called the Crop Trust, is part of a broader network for seed storage. About 1,750 gene banks scattered across the globe hold the genetic codes to the world’s crops, both past and present, in the form of seeds or other plant tissues called germ plasm. Together, these facilities contain about 7.4 million types of germ plasm, according to the UN’s food and agriculture agency.
Around the world, crop diversity is decreasing, as food production converges around a globalized diet. A 2019 University of Toronto study found just four crops — soybeans, wheat, rice and corn — occupy nearly half of the world’s agricultural lands. The researchers also pointed to a lack of genetic diversity within individual crops; for example, in North America, just six individual corn genotypes make up over half of all corn crops. When a small number of crop genotypes dominate globally, that makes our food supply more vulnerable to disease and disaster.
Preserving living crop genotypes in gene banks means plant breeders can tap into that diversity to create new, resilient crops. “We need diversity to create something new,” Axel Diederichsen, a researcher for Agriculture and AgriFood Canada, who works at Canada’s plant gene bank, in Saskatoon. “If we only have one type of wheat and we want to make a new wheat, it’s very difficult. But if we have a collection with diverse wheat, then we can make crosses.”
Canada also has two other gene banks: one in Harrow, Ont., which holds fruit trees and small crops; and another, in Fredericton, which stores the genetic material for more than 200 types of potatoes.
But gene banks are fallible. “Many gene banks all over the world have lost seeds, due to flooding, due to fires, due to war and conflict, due to electricity failures, lack of resources,” said Asdal, the vault’s co-ordinator. Anything from a dropped envelope to a natural disaster can threaten the preservation of seeds in gene banks.
That’s where the Global Seed Vault comes in. Gene banks are invited to store duplicates of their seeds in the Svalbard vault, as a backup. Canada has about 32,000 envelopes in Svalbard, each containing about 200 seeds, to grow crops like barley, oat and wheat, Diederichsen said. Since 2008, Canada has made seven deposits in the Global Seed Bank, he said, and has another planned for October.
The vault currently hosts 5,947 plant species, many of which no longer grow on this earth, from 91 gene banks, according to its website. With each new deposit, the vault’s library grows richer. In June, Lithuania and Spain backed up seeds in the Global Seed Vault for the first time, as part of a large deposit that welcomed varieties of rice bean, lablab and a yard-long bean.
The vault’s value has already been tested. In 2015, after Syria’s bloody civil war forced an important gene bank in Aleppo to relocate to Beirut, researchers retrieved more than100,000 seed samples from the Arctic to replant in the new facility.
The Global Seed Vault’s far-flung location in an Arctic territory of politically stable Norway makes it a comfortable and safe home for the world’s seeds. Svalbard’s chilly climate and hundreds of metres thick permafrost make it a good choice, too. When seeds are frozen, they can stay alive for centuries, Asdal said. The mountain permafrost has a stable temperature of between -3 and -4 C, and the vault uses artificial cooling to keep the seeds at an icy -18C. But even if the cooling system were to fail, the seeds would stay frozen, Asdal said.
But even this so-called doomsday vault isn’t immune to the world’s collective climate change. Svalbard is the fastest warming place on earth, heating at a rate five to seven times that of the rest of the world, and rapidly rising temperatures are causing the permafrost to thaw. After an unusually warm winter in 2017, a flood of meltwater breached the vault. No seeds were harmed, but the scare prompted the Norwegian government to spend about $30 million fortifying the vault.
Despite the existential threats Svalbard is facing — from melting glaciers, to avalanches, to landslides — the Global Seed Vault is safe, Asdal assures, though it may need to use a bit more electricity to keep things cool as the planet warms.
Still, the world will need to lean on the genetic resources in the vault and other gene banks as the climate crisis accelerates, to replant crops that are destroyed in major weather events, and to breed new, adaptive plant varieties. Our food security depends on it.