When we think of treasures, the things that come to mind are gold, silver and diamonds. And if you were to draw the circle a little wider, we would include things like family, rare languages and historic documents. But would you ever think of a plant seed as a treasure, a tiny piece of life encapsulated in a permeable membrane? I would be surprised if many people associated seeds with something of great value.
However, if we were to spend some time pondering the issue, we would quickly come to the conclusion that yes, we can live without a family and historic monuments and we could definitely survive without material wealth, but what would happen to life on earth if we had no seeds – particularly seeds of agricultural crops?
It is that thought that had the experts on global food security worried for many decades, concerned enough to build a vault in the middle of nowhere and store wheat, barley, rice, corn and grass seeds, to name a few. The storehouse of seeds was meant as a safety net, a global backstop for the world’s future food supply.
There are two primary reasons why it is important to stock up on seeds for agricultural crops: a) There has been so much plant breeding and hybridization done to agricultural crops, that those seeds which formed the foundation for most of our food crops, are at risk of being lost to future generations. The tomato plant is a perfect example. The next time you eat a hamburger, take time to notice that the tomato in your sandwich barely has any taste. Truth is, most of the taste has been lost in an effort to breed a tomato that grows quickly, shows no blemishes, is easy to ship, has a long shelf life and grows to a size that is perfectly suited for a hamburger bun. When was the last time you ate a tomato that was dark red, juicy and tasted delicious? If we ever wanted to obtain seed to grow an “original” tomato again, where would we find the “parent plant” upon which all subsequent hybridizations were based? b) Another way to lose seed supplies for agricultural research and production is through conflict, war and cataclysmic events (e.g. meteor strike, volcanic eruption, nuclear war).
Many national, international and regional seed storage facilities exist throughout the world and most countries are able to secure the food crops that are grown locally. But what happens if those seed banks are destroyed, genetic diversity is compromised or seed supplies are too diminished to allow for the continued production and research of local food crops?
Many global experts have been thinking about this scenario for decades and have had their eyes on arctic Norway for the establishment of a global seed vault. The idea is to ask every country and every seed bank in the world to give a portion of their agricultural seed to the global seed vault for safe keeping. Of course, the location of such a vault would have to meet some very important criteria: the vault has to ensure that the seed viability (the ability of the seed to germinate) is maintained for generations to come, the vault has to be located in a country with a stable political environment, the vault has to be capable of withstanding cataclysmic events and finally has to be easily accessible in case a seed withdrawal is requested by a country.
The island of Spitsbergen in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago meets all of these requirements and was chosen as the most suitable location. In 2008 and after many years of planning, the Global Seed Vault was finally built by Norway near the town of Longyerbyen at 71 degr NL (half way between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole). Located 150 m (492 ft) inside a mountain, the vault can be maintained at a constant temperature of – 18 C (0 F). So far over 500,000 seed types from all over the world have been deposited and are now stored in sealed boxes on shelves in three secure caverns. Even North Korea has contributed their seeds. While in storage, each country retains ownership of the seed it deposited. The vault has a storage capacity of over 4.5 million different seed types and plenty of room for future seed deposits.
The first withdrawal of seed from the Global Seed Vault ever occurred in fall of 2015. Syria’s ongoing civil war destroyed much of its national seed reserves. The country was in urgent need of help from the Global Seed Vault in Norway. As a result, a total of 116,000 seeds were returned to the country in the hope, that Syria would soon be able to restock its emergency seed bank on Spitsbergen.
The nickname “Doomsday Vault”, which was given to the Global Seed Vault by the world’s media, tells only half the story. Yes, it provides earth with an emergency seed supply in case of a regional or global catastrophe, but it negates the vault’s other important function: to ensure genetic biodiversity in the world’s agricultural cops. I guess that latter function doesn’t sell very well on the cable news networks.
Visiting the vault is not particularly exciting. Pilgrims to the vault, common folks like me, are not allowed inside. All I can do is take pictures of the outside and wonder why the place is not heavily guarded. After all, there are irreplaceable treasures stored in those cold chambers. It would not take much to blow open the door to the vault and for someone to wreak havoc with the world’s emergency food supply. We can only hope there is more security around the vault than meets the eye. Knowing the Norwegians, they probably have trolls stand guard. Makes perfect sense to me. When was the last time you have seen a troll?