Frozen Hope: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

“These are seed varieties that survived … It’s a library of life.” – Cary Fowler

Nestled 400 feet into the side of a mountain in Spitsbergen, Norway, over 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle, rests the largest international agricultural collaboration in the world: the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Nationally owned seed banks exist in almost every country, staffed by scientists who study and preserve local agriculture, including endangered and ancient crops. But politics, natural disasters, and wars have devastated national preservation programs; without a backup copy, hundreds of seed varieties can go extinct in a matter of hours.

Cary Fowler, a member of the Crop Trust, first presented the idea of a global seed storage facility on the island of Spitsbergen in 1983. Arguments over property rights to genetic samples and the legitimate concern of genetic theft, which Fowler defines as the “idea that a recipient might acquire intellectual property rights through such a sample and reap undeserved benefits” delayed construction until 2001, when the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture made the initiative plausible. In the eyes of the Crop Trust, the seed vault has two functions: first, to provide an international storage space for seeds which can be withdrawn in case of emergency, either war or natural disaster; and second, to preserve today’s agricultural diversity for millennium to come. Norway’s Global Seed Vault, far from an overdone Apocalypse preparation scheme, provides a priceless hope for agricultural diversity today; but as invincible as the structure may seem, frozen seeds cannot insure the same for long.

Dyveke Sanne’s ‘Perpetual Repercussions’, a system of mirrors and stainless steel plates, makes the most of Arctic winter light (Koro, Norway Public Art).

The Global Seed Vault fulfills every requirement for an international seed preservation facility:  an ideal location, protection from natural disaster, perfect storage conditions, avoidance of genetic theft, and prevention of international attack. When choosing a site and drafting plans for the vault, engineers tried to envision every possible scenario that might undermine the security of the vault. The result is a marvel of modern architecture, simple, functional, and strong, yet ruggedly beautiful.

Designed to withstand climate change and natural disaster, the vault was built 130 meters above sea level, higher than melting Artic ice could ever reach. Only a few hundred miles from the North Pole, the vault overlooks Longyearbyen, a small town on the island of Spitsbergen, within the Svalbard archipelago. The climate of Spitsbergen is so cold that even in the event of serious global warming permafrost will keep some of the seeds viable for up to 200 years. The location of the seed vault plays a crucial role in ensuring the long-term safety of the samples.  

Spitsbergen Island – Svalbard, Norway (Wikipedia Commons)

The preservation of the seeds themselves depends on two elements, temperature and humidity of the air inside the vault; it must be kept dry and very cold. The depositing country carefully packs seeds in four-ply foil, places them inside sturdy boxes, and arranges transport to the vault, where the samples will be placed inside one of three secured rooms. Although permafrost cools the vault to about five degrees below zero, a cooling system powered by locally mined coal drops the temperature to a frigid eighteen below zero degrees Celsius. If the cooling system fails, Fowler estimates that it would take several decades for the vault to warm enough to damage any stored seeds. Under ideal conditions seeds could last for thousands of years.

Sealed seed boxes in the vault.
(Wikipedia Commons)

The greatest obstacles to the seed vault initiative were the issues of property rights, genetic theft, and upkeep cost of the vault. The Crop Trust devised a system for the Global Seed Vault that manages to bypass political tensions and secure national property rights. Cary Fowler explains that the Global Seed Vault avoids genetic theft by ensuring that each country retains national ownership of each deposit, and assumes responsibility for maintaining and refreshing each seed sample as necessary. Only the depositing country can ever open the seed boxes, and even then, Fowler notes that “a sample can be retrieved only by the gene bank that deposited it.” This approach safeguards genetic material and keeps management staff at the seed vault to a bare minimum. Little direct involvement with the vault diminishes the upkeep costs to about 200 thousand dollars annually. The seed vault is one of the most valuable global resources, yet the annual upkeep is less than half the amount of rent and fees typically paid by a small McDonald’s restaurant. These numbers help dispel the widespread misconception that the seed vault is draining resources that would otherwise be available to projects like the United Nation’s World Food Programme.

The final measure of protection for the seeds in the vault is against international attack. The Global Seed Vault is its own insurance policy. With deposits from all over the world, including the United States, Great Britain, North Korea, Japan, China, Afghanistan, and Germany, any damage to the vault is a risk to agriculture around the world. To successfully destroy the vault would come at a great cost to the antagonist. Besides this concern, the vault’s remote location makes access possible but not easy, and its location, nearly 130 meters deep inside a mountain, makes it impervious to any attack, apart from a direct nuclear hit. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built to preserve seeds for an indefinite period; a reliable, secure facility that can provide a duplicate of genetic material in case of emergency.

Representatives from the Syrian seed bank make the first withdrawal from the Global Seed Vault. (Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food)

In the summer of 2015 came the emergency the vault was waiting for. A seed bank on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria had become embroiled in civil war. A team partially evacuated the seed bank, but a large collection of basic crops such as lentils, barley, and wheat were in desperate need of restocking, and staff had little hope of returning to Syria. However, duplicates of seed samples from the Aleppo bank were held at the Global Seed Vault. In the fall of 2015, Syrian scientists flew to Spitsbergen and withdrew 116,000 seed samples from the vault. The seeds were planted and used to restock the Syrian bank. As soon as possible, duplicate samples were sent back to Svalbard. To date, the Syrian withdrawal remains the only one. Without the Global Seed Vault, several drought-resistant crop varieties would have gone extinct, and their genetic material would have been lost.

Preserving genetic material lies at the heart of the vault’s secondary purpose: the long-term preservation of agricultural diversity. Every crop variety has genetic traits making it resistant to drought, heat, disease, or insects. Maintaining this genetic diversity is key to the future success of the seed vault. The Global Seed Vault was built to hold 4.5 million seed samples, about three times the estimated number of crop varieties on earth, each sample averaging 400 to 500 seeds. The latest seed deposit, on February 22, 2017, brought the vault to a grand total of 940,000 seed samples from over 200 different countries around the world, including thousands of different varieties of the same species. There are over 100,000 varieties of wheat and rice within the vault. However, this virtual treasure chest of agricultural diversity is only as valuable as it is current.

The Global Seed Vault strives to preserve diversity by preventing the extinction of crop varieties. The largest factor in the extinction of crop samples is climate change. Climate change and natural disaster can be brutal reminders of natural selection:  only the strongest, most resilient crops survive. These stronger crops spread and adapt to the changing environment, and the cycle is repeated. The seed vault prevents this loss of diversity by storing the seeds that are at risk alongside those that are thriving. In other words, the vault attempts to stand in the way of ‘survival of the fittest.’ Seeds stored indefinitely depend on the hope that a crop which would become extinct due to environmental factors in the next few years will be viable after several hundred years. However, a crop variety on the verge of extinction due to climate change today may not thrive in the climate hundreds or thousands of years from now. Seeds have evolved and adapted to the fluctuating environment for thousands of years, but for the seeds in the vault, time has stopped. Evolution is literally frozen. Unless the seeds in the vault are kept meticulously up-to-date, they could become useless to the changing world of agriculture.

Agricultural diversity can only be preserved through a combination of different strategies. The Global Seed Vault, a secure storage space for ancient and brand-new crop varieties, holds seeds that could save agriculture today. But to protect agriculture a few hundred years from now, active development of crop varieties and careful nurturing of various traits, in addition to a precise storage method, is vital to effectively maintain crop variety in a changing environment. There is no single solution that will indefinitely preserve crop diversity, but if the Global Seed Vault remains a dynamic facility, old varieties and new ones stored side-by-side, its work will be priceless for centuries to come.

***

Katherine Muser grew up military and settled in Colorado Springs a few years ago. She is pursuing a career in music, with a focus on teaching and music therapy. In her free time, she enjoys reading and drawing.