27 October 2016Last updated

Making a difference

Global Seed Vault

In the midst of north Europe’s stunning wilderness is an inconsequential-looking building that could be key to the future of food supply. Sarah Gibbons goes in search of…

Sarah Gibbons
29 Jul 2016 | 12:00 am
  • The late Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai placed the first seeds in the Vault.

    Source:Phocal Media Image 1 of 4
  • Set deep inside a mountain in Svalbard, between Norway and the North Pole, it has been dubbed the doomsday vault.

    Source:Alamy Image 2 of 4
  • The Vault’s current store includes seeds from almost every country in the world – 1.4m plant varieties in total.

    Source:Alamy Image 3 of 4
  • The Vault is a staggering 120m into the rock, so even in the event of a mechanical failure, it will remain frozen.

    Source:Getty Images Image 4 of 4

A box of rice seeds sits on a metal shelf deep underground in one of the world’s most remote and uninviting landscapes.

Placed there in 2008, they are frozen in time, free from the ravages of the outside world – never to be destroyed by drought, attacked by disease, become casualties of war or the creeping menace of climate change.

Insignificant to the public eye, this timeless specimen could actually hold the key to feeding an ever-increasing global population in a post-apocalyptic world.

These seeds, and others like them now lying in the inhospitable wilds of northern Europe, could be the lifeline that reignites agriculture and food production in the event of a major international disaster.

The world’s population is predicted to reach a staggering 11 billion by the end of this century.

Yet farmers and other producers face increased threats to their ability to feed us all on a daily basis.

Recognising this, coupled with a series of outbreaks of virulent disease – strains wiping out swathes of crops – the international community decided to act in the future interests of humankind.

The result is the vault deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. Called the Global Seed Vault, the late Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai made the first deposit, the box of rice seeds, in February 2008.

Now seeds are deposited in the Vault from collections held by governments, public and private institutions, NGOs and other seed conservationists around the world. The Seed Vault’s mission is for every single seed crop important for food security to be safely backed up in the Vault. Therefore the Seed Vault’s three partners (the Norwegian Government, The Crop Trust, and the Nordic Gene Bank, NordGen) encourage governments and seed collectors across the world to deposit unique varieties.

Says Brian Lainoff, Partnerships and Communications Officer at the Global Crop Diversity Trust: ‘The seeds that are safely backed up in the vault continue to be the property of the depositors.

There’s much relevance of that. ‘The biggest collection of barley in the world, for example, is held at the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas in Syria, a centre that not only does research on how to promote agriculture in dry areas but is a gene bank for a variety of seeds, including barley. If something were to happen to that collection due to the ongoing war, the government of Syria could request their back-ups from the Vault to restart their collection.’

The concrete entrance to the vault resembles an iceberg jutting out of the snow – symbolic of the notion that this facility is just the start of a mammoth conservation project whose objective is simply the preservation of human life.

Nations have long held their own seed collections as they realised the need to diversify their crops to stave off the effects of global warming – notably hotter, drier seasons coupled with a greater incidence of flooding. But other man-made threats have made the need for an international safe storage space ever more pressing.
Worldwide, more than 1,700 gene banks hold collections of food crops for safekeeping, yet many of these are vulnerable, exposed not only to natural catastrophes and war, but also to avoidable disasters – lack of funding, poor management. Something as mundane as a poorly functioning freezer can ruin an entire collection. And the loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal or any form of life.

A good example is the Iraqi seed vault, situated near one of the world’s most notorious prisons, Abu Ghraib. In the aftermath of the 2003 US invasion, it was destroyed. A hidden bank of seeds in Afghanistan was looted, with the thieves running away with the plastic containers, and the seeds dumped in disarray on the ground, making them worthless.

Six years after it was damaged by a flood, the Philippines bank was destroyed by fire in 2012. Then there was Egypt’s catalogue of desert seeds in northern Sinai – it fell victim to looters during the 2011 uprisings.

Some inventories were recovered in bold rescue missions. Much of the collection in Aleppo in Syria was smuggled out in discreet batches by workers and commercial courier services shortly before the war reached its building. Back-ups to that collection are now housed at Svalbard.

And they sit safely underground, protected by permafrost alongside a further 860,000 samples.

The Seed Vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples. Each sample contains an average count of 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2.25 billion seeds can be stored in the facility. The collection and storage of seeds will continue for some time.

The Vault’s current store includes seeds from almost every country in the world – China, France and Japan have yet to make deposits and it is hoped that India and Brazil will play a more active role in the coming years.

Says Brian of the Global Crop Diversity Trust: ‘The Crop Trust was established by governments to ensure the conservation of crop diversity forever in gene banks/freezers. Through our endowment, the Crop Trust will support national collections of crop diversity, the international collections of crop diversity and the back-up of these collections at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

‘Without the diversity held in the collections supported by the Crop Trust, the world’s agricultural systems will not be able to adapt to changing climates, new pests and diseases or any other challenge we may face in the future.

‘The Crop Trust finished a five-year project in 2012 to rescue 80,000 varieties of crops that were at risk of going extinct. This was the biggest biological rescue operation in history.

‘This back-up is not meant to feed the world immediately following an apocalyptic event, but rather allows us to have the tools we need to rebuild agriculture from the start should this event happen.’

Samples range from unique varieties of staples across Africa and Asia, such as maize, rice and wheat, to European and South American species of lettuce, barley and potato. As such, it is the holder of the most diverse collection of food crop seeds in the world, storing about half of the world’s known crop diversity, estimated to be about 1.4m plant varieties.

So why Svalbard?

The most basic geographical facts about the location, combined with the stable political landscape, makes this remote mountain the ideal spot to create a fail-safe facility.

Its cold climate and permafrost make the area a perfect location for underground cold storage. The surrounding sandstone is stable for building and is low in radiation. In terms of security, Svalbard scores highly compared to the locations of many other gene banks in the world. The infrastructure is good, with daily flights and a reliable source of energy from local coal supplies. The vault is located a staggering 120m into the rock, ensuring that the vault rooms will remain naturally frozen even in the event of failure of the mechanical cooling system and rising external air temperatures due to climate change, plus the Vault is placed well above sea level (130m) – far above the point of any projected sea level rise.

When governments began to talk about the danger to crops from climate change, Norway emerged as one of the only places still trusted by both developing and industrialised countries: if there was to be an agreement on founding a safe house for seeds, Norway was the logical place. Governments from Washington to Pyongyang agreed to deposit back-up copies of their most precious plant resources in Svalbard.

And so Norway agreed to invest $9 million (about Dh33 million) into building the vault deep in the Platåberget (plateau) mountain.
The distance from the front door of the portal building to the back of the vault is approximately 145.9m. The width of each vault is about 9.5 to 10m and the height is 6m. Each vault is approximately 27m long.

The site costs in the region of US $300,000 per year – covered jointly by the Crop Trust and the Norwegian government.

For 360 days of the year the Vault is locked and empty. People only work at the vault when a deposit occurs – typically three times a year. Statsbygg, the Norwegian building company that manages all government-owned buildings, monitors the vault from their offices in the village on a daily basis to ensure it is running smoothly. In the unlikely event that external energy sources fail, the vault has a back-up generator that can be used to power the cooling systems. Even in the case of total power-loss, the permafrost already cools down to -7, which allows for a cool enough environment for quite some time.

Hi-tech security systems of cameras, temperature monitors, and other devices ensure the building’s protection.

The seeds are stored at -18°C, sealed in specially designed four-ply foil packages placed in sealed boxes and stored on shelves inside the vault. The low temperature and moisture level ensure low metabolic activity, keeping the seeds viable for decades, centuries, or in some cases several centuries.

Some crops cannot be stored in Svalbard, because they require different conditions. There are no bananas, apples, cassavas or tubers, for example.

In a massive room, 10 rows of warehouse shelving, alphabetically labelled, are heaped with boxes, 12 on a shelf. The boxes are stacked as they arrive – North Korea’s boxes sit next door to those from the US, Russia’s deposits on top of Ukraine’s.

The strict protocols surrounding storage and access mean that the boxes with seeds are sealed by the depositors and will not be distributed to or given access to by anyone other than the depositors.

While supporting the need for the ultimate back-up that Svalbard provides, some experts are concerned that not enough effort is going into the complementary work of in-situ conservation and diversification.

‘We recognise the importance of gene banks,’ says Nori Ignacio, executive director of Philippines-based South-East Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (Searice), who has worked for years helping farmers cope with natural disaster and climate change. ‘We are not saying they are not important.

‘But for us what they are doing, and what they have got to do, is just collect, and there is not much interaction with the community.’ She argues that the best way to save crop diversity would be to just help farmers get on with it.

Nigel Maxted, senior lecturer in Genetic Conservation at the University of Birmingham, UK, and a consultant to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, says: ‘We want to pursue complementary conservation techniques – 99 per cent is carried out ex situ so it is nowhere near equal with in situ techniques.

‘Svalbard is very successful and very necessary but this other part is not being done and the two agendas need to run together.

‘In situ would involve identifying centres of diversity and saving key plants in protected areas. We’ve been talking about it for 30 years but can count the active sites on one hand.

‘In situ, breeders take lines and cross them. You get a lot of traits, many of which are negative so at first farmers would see shrinking production – there is no short-term benefit to them.

‘However, the long-term benefits could include, for example, drought resistance.

‘Seeds from the gene bank won’t have had the chance to adapt to ongoing climate change and the evolution of pests.’

With every day that passes, the debate rumbles on against a backdrop of impending disaster threatening our food chain.

But those small boxes deep in the mountains of Svalbard could prove to be a priceless insurance policy that means life in a post-apocalyptic world might not be one of mass starvation.

Sarah Gibbons

Sarah Gibbons