Located on an isolated island about 800 miles from the North Pole, the Svalbard seed vault is locked in arctic permafrost and protects over three million varieties of different seeds from all over the world, partly for preservation from farming consolidation, and partly to protect the reserves from an apocalypse.
It’s buried nearly 400 feet into a limestone mountain and was built to be able to fend off any natural or manmade disasters, including an ocean much higher than it is right now.
But what’s the point of all it? Does Crop Trust, the international organization that founded the vault and maintains its -18° C (a little colder than 0° F at -0.4° F) temperature year round, really believe the world needs its varieties of seeds to be protected from disaster?
Yes and no.
Global Crop Diversity Trust, or Crop Trust for short, is mostly interested in maintaining genetic diversity among the world’s crops. Due to agricultural practices, many of the world’s food sources are single family or mono-farmed varieties. The banana is one good example of the destruction such unsustainable farming poses in the long term: in the 1950s, a fungus completely wiped out the “banana” at the time, until it was replaced with the modern day Cavendish variety, which is possibly the ‘only banana you’ve ever eaten.’
Now, more recently, that family has become targeted by the fungus, and threatens either the livelihood or the diet of 400 million people. A relative that’s immune to the current incarnation of the fungus is being grown now, but as history has shown, it’ll only be a matter of time before the blight adapts to the overwhelmingly changed ecology.
This is why variety is important. The Svalbard seed vault currently houses roughly 865,000 samples, and each sample contains about 500 seeds, and its current capacity can hold 4.5 million total samples. If gene varieties are lost from gene banks or seed banks around the world, the Svalbard Seed Vault acts as a kind of back-up system. We don’t have a way to create new strains of plants from nothing, so having a large amount of genetic diversity is important for current or future issues like the fungus that wiped out the banana in the 1950s. Most of the samples are focused on staple crops, so there are almost 160,000 samples of wheat.
One main problem Crop Trust is running into is gaining backing and funding from more countries. Several nations haven’t participated, and maintaining the samples isn’t as easy as throwing them in a box and calling it good. While -18° C is a good temperature to hold off metabolic activity, it’s just one step in the process of saving the genetic information stored inside them. The vault’s seeds also need farm land, space, and time to replant the seeds, grow new crops, and harvest new samples to replenish the vault.
That’s a huge problem when you have nearly 1 million varieties you need to maintain. And they all have different rates of decay. Bananas, for example, are seedless fruit. That means a piece of fruit has to be saved and regrown much more frequently than say, apples. Current samples of bananas are stored in liquid nitrogen down to -196° C to make them last longer, but nothing is immortal.
With that level of overhead and vital maintenance, it’s no wonder the power outage detailed over at The Guardian was so scary: The Svalbard vault is bullet proof, especially compared to seed/gene banks around the world, which in comparison are very susceptible to natural and manmade disasters.
A power outage for a long period of time, funding issues, civil unrest, war, terrorism are all things that can completely undo a seed/gene bank. In comparison, Svalbard’s isolation and bunker-like structure protect it from all these things. Svalbard acts as a fail-safe in that event, where the permafrost will help keep temperatures low and the isolated location will keep it from being harmed by catastrophe, war, or destruction, which is what traditional seed banks aren’t protected from.
That isn’t the issue that the Svalbard vault was built to withstand though. Genetic material was being lost from gene banks around the world because of mismanagement and budgetary issues, not terrorism or war. The crisis wasn’t following the deafening destruction of gene banks around the world, but by the “drip, drip, drip of extinction,” as Cary Fowler, Crop Trust’s senior advisor put it.
The other issue is keeping countries participating that have donated before. To ensure that, only donors can access their contributions, to keep any fears of poaching at bay. Of course, what happens if a country is dissolved in a civil war or revolution? Who retains control over the donations, does it pass to Crop Trust?
The vault is only opened three times a year for donations to be brought in. Everything is cataloged, but security staff aren’t allowed to look inside the boxes. This is because of the donor-agreement.
Most countries have donated to the Svalbard vault. The big ones that haven’t yet have reservations: Japan, China, and India. Italy has only donated two samples, and developing countries have stopped sending deposits since shipping costs were too high.
The Svalbard Seed vault might not ever need to be utilized in a disaster event, but it isn’t a misstep. They’re currently seeking funding to make sure the vault can be managed for as long as possible, and some crops have already been given enough funding to ensure their genetic diversity is never lost. With the population estimated to reach 11 billion by 2100, genetic crop diversity will be more important than ever for feeding the world and delaying the loss of staples in the human diet for over 10,000 years.
Words by Edwin Henry