Agriculture’s crown jewels


700 miles from the North Pole, tucked away in a sandstone cavern in a frozen, Arctic mountain, is the making of future dinners.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened in early 2008 as a sort of back-up hard drive for nature. It operates as safe storage to preserve collections of seeds duplicating what can be found in existing seed gene banks. The Svalbard seeds will only be accessed when the original seed collections have been lost for any reason.

The seed vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million different seed samples with priority given to crops that are important for food production. More than 7,000 plant species have historically been used in human diets representing a fraction of the varieties and diversity that can be found— rice alone accounts for 100,000 seed varieties. Modern agriculture is based almost entirely on fewer than 150 species.

When in full use, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will represent the world’s largest collection of seeds.

A hodgepodge of seed banks has existed for decades, but nothing approaching the breadth and depth of the Svalbard collection or the security of its vault. The vulnerability of the other collections was made all-too apparent when looters recently raided seed banks in the midst of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. With significant seed banks operating in often politically or environmentally unstable regions of Peru, Colombia, Syria, Rwanda, India, and Ethiopia, the scientific community felt the need for a more secure safety net to ensure that the world’s food supply has the diversity needed to stand against the vagaries of climate, politics, and human error.

The mountain site in the remote Arctic Svalbard Archipelago was chosen for its permafrost and lack of tectonic activity. At 430 feet above sea level the vault will remain dry even if waters rise as the polar ice caps melt, and subzero temperatures should preserve the seeds— vacuum- and heat-sealed in four-ply plastic— for centuries, even millenia for certain seeds. The popular image is of a “doomsday vault;” the go-to place for humankind to rebuild after a global catastrophe like an asteroid hit or nuclear holocaust. The reality is more likely that the vault will be tapped by agricultural researchers who have lost their own seed samples due to mismanagement, equipment failures, funding cuts, and weather disasters: more safe deposit box than Noah’s Ark.

Three-quarters of the planet’s biodiversity in crops was lost in the last century. Of course it’s a quality of life issue as unknown choices and pleasures disappear. But there are also potentially dire consequences. Crop varieties have always been threatened by pests and weather. Add to that the modern dangers posed by climate change, economic pressures, and contamination by genetically modified organisms. The integrity of our food supply could hinge on the preservation of crop varieties that are tolerant of unknown future conditions.

For a closer look at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, visit Time Magazine’s photo essay.


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