The Global Seed Vault Has Been Open for 10 Years; What Does It Do?

  • Cary Fowler in the main seed vault. Its natural year-round temperature is minus-5 degrees Celsius (23 degrees Fahrenheit), but the air is further cooled to the optimum storage temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-18 degrees Celsius). MUST CREDIT: Jim Richardson/Prospecta Press

  • Located near the North Pole on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault safeguards the agricultural plant collections of more than 230 countries. MUST CREDIT: Mari Tefre/Prospecta Press

The Washington Post
Friday, March 02, 2018

’Tis the time of year to get seeds for the coming growing season. On Monday, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic Circle got a delivery of more than 76,000 seed batches from gene banks in 22 countries.

But these are not for germinating — not yet, anyway. Sometimes referred to as the doomsday seed vault, the chilled storage chambers are located within a mountain on Norway’s island of Spitsbergen and form the protected repository of the world’s food crops.

This week’s ceremonial arrival of rice, wheat, barley, legumes and other seeds puts the vault’s inventory at more than 1 million varieties of crops. It also marked the vault’s 10th anniversary.

Officials with the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and the Crop Trust were on hand to receive a total of 179 boxes of seed from gene banks around the world, including two in the United States.

Jon Georg Dale, Norway’s minister of agriculture and food, said in a statement that in a period of extreme weather and an increasing global population “it is more important than ever to ensure that seeds — the foundation of our food supply and the future of our agriculture — are safely conserved.”

The Norwegian government also announced a $12.7 million plan to improve the vault with the construction of a new access tunnel and a service building to house emergency power and refrigerating units. The proposal stems from flooding at the entrance from an unexpected thaw in the permafrost, though none of the seed stocks were affected.

The vault is not exactly at the North Pole, but it’s nearer to it than just about anywhere else, and well inside the Arctic Circle on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. This beguiling structure juts out from a mountain near the town of Longyearbyen, which is reputed to be the northernmost permanent settlement on Earth and a place where residents must go about their business with rifles slung over their backs, on account of the polar bears. The sun falls below the horizon on Nov. 14 and isn’t seen again until March 8.

It is precisely this remoteness and coldness that led scientist Cary Fowler and his colleagues at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, now known as the Crop Trust, to persuade the Norwegian government to locate the vault there. The seed vault has taken on a mythic quality around the world, perhaps because its entrance — stark, geometric, bejeweled by a light sculpture by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne — hints at something not just hidden but forbidden. Bauhaus meets Valhalla.

Fowler, with principal photographer Mari Tefre, also wrote a book on the vault, called Seeds on Ice, that lifts the veil on the place. It’s not open to the public, even though it quickly became the second most recognized structure in Norway.

Svalbard’s beguiling paradox of fame and mystery inevitably has spawned various wacky conspiracy theories, including the idea that the vault is a top-secret NATO facility housing a global eugenics project. Fowler hopes the book will dispel a more mainstream misapprehension: that this is a doomsday vault, a time capsule to unlock after a nuclear Armageddon.

The seeds come from the existing seed banks across the globe, and they are insurance against the loss of an irreplaceable crop to something as unexciting as a budget crisis in a poor country (or a rich one) to, yes, a cataclysmic nuclear war.

Each seed has its own genetic makeup, and the value of these stocks is in their DNA. If a new disease or pest were to wipe out a strain of wheat, for example, it’s probable that the germ plasm at Svalbard could be used to breed in resistance. Climate change poses another tangible threat, as extreme weather events, rising waters and shifts in temperatures require the development of new varieties to handle the challenges.

In part, the Svalbard vault is best understood by what it is not: It is not a vast subterranean laboratory staffed with the world’s boffins in white coats, a la CERN or a James Bond movie. It is a hole in a mountain, a tunnel that extends a few hundred feet and terminates in three chambers, each 90 feet long, 30 feet wide and 16 feet high. Only one is in use at the moment.

It is simple, relatively cheap to run and designed to withstand physical calamity and human interference. It is meant to last 1,000 years or more.

It is not permanently staffed, though it is constantly monitored and the seeds are housed behind at least five locked doors. You couldn’t just show up and loiter with intent. You would be noticed by the local police, or the controllers in the distant airport tower or the polar bears.

Nor is it a time capsule. The seeds are very much alive and available for use today, if needed.

Unfortunately, that has come to pass with the tragedy that has befallen Aleppo. The Syrian city held the seed bank of the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) and contained vital stocks of such staples as wheat, barley, chickpeas and fava beans.

The staff there sent seeds to Svalbard just months before the engulfing civil war. In 2015, Svalbard returned many of the seeds to new ICARDA facilities established in Morocco and Lebanon, where scientists and farmers grew them to generate new seed stocks. Some of the new seed has been returned to Svalbard for safekeeping.

The threats to our food supply are often far less stark but no less real. Fowler says agriculture faces “its most severe set of challenges since the Neolithic period.” Besides climate change, this includes the need to grow more food for an increasing population using fewer resources. One contemporary approach to this is the development of genetically modified organisms by multinational biotech companies. The vault doesn’t contain GMOs, though Fowler’s stance on this is not strictly in opposition to transgenic breeding. His interest, instead, is in conserving all the natural genetic diversity embodied in these seeds as insurance for our food supply in the centuries to come.

In the early ’90s, Fowler, a native Tennessean, was recruited by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization to oversee a review of the world’s crop diversity and found many national seed collections in dire states of storage and care. He has since left the directorship of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, though he remains an adviser to the trust and is chairman of the seed vault’s International Advisory Council.

He says the Svalbard vault could bring a more rational system of seed conservation to seed banks around the world by relieving some of the pressure on national collections and the resources needed to maintain them.

Fowler has been immersed in this field for decades, but Svalbard made him realize, he said, that many of the world’s agricultural crops are not familiar even to experts. What, you might ask, is sesbania, or Chihuahuan snout-bean or voa vanga?

The point is that tastes and crops change. How many gardeners in the United States were growing bok choy or arugula 50 years ago?

“People look at the seed vault and see it as a conservation initiative,” he told me. “But those of us in the field have multiple motivations. The reason for wanting to conserve it isn’t to make us feel good but to have it be of use in the future.”

Like the crystalline, fiber-optic sculpture at its portal, the vault is a beacon of optimism and comity in a world that may seem cold and dark. It is a gift to the entire human family for generations to come.