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the vault seed bank

Millions of these tiny brown specks, from more than 930,000 varieties of food crops, are stored in the Global Seed Vault on Spitsbergen, part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. It is essentially a huge safety deposit box, holding the world’s largest collection of agricultural biodiversity. “Inside this building is 13,000 years of agricultural history,” says Brian Lainoff, lead partnerships coordinator of the Crop Trust, which manages the vault, as he hauls open the huge steel door leading inside the mountain.

Woefully underfunded, many lack the resources to properly store or protect the seeds they hold. The Crop Trust is now raising money for an endowment fund to ensure that the world’s 1,700 gene-bank facilities are able to continue acting as guarantors of global biodiversity.

On this occasion, samples from India, Pakistan and Mexico were being deposited alongside seeds from Syria, many of whose citizens are living through their own apocalypse. “There are big and small doomsdays going on around the world every day. Genetic material is being lost all over the globe,” says Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust. This past winter offered the gene bank a chance to redress the balance.

In an age of heightened geopolitical tensions and uncertainty, the Svalbard vault is an unusual and hopeful exercise in international cooperation for the good of humankind. Any organization or country can send seeds to it, and there are no restrictions because of politics or the requirements of diplomacy. Red wooden boxes from North Korea sit alongside black boxes from the U.S. Over on the next aisle, boxes of seeds from Ukraine sit atop seeds from Russia. “The seeds don’t care that there are North Korean seeds and South Korean seeds in the same aisle,” Lainoff says. “They are cold and safe up there, and that’s all that really matters.”

Near the entrance to the facility, a rectangular wedge of concrete that juts out starkly against the snowy landscape, the doomsday nickname seems eerily apt. It was precisely for its remoteness that Svalbard was chosen as the location of the vault. “It is away from the places on earth where you have war and terror, everything maybe you are afraid of in other places. It is situated in a safe place,” says Bente Naeverdal, a property manager who oversees the day-to-day operation of the vault.

Way up north, in the permafrost, 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, is the world's largest secure seed storage, opened by the Norwegian Government in February 2008. From all across the globe, crates of seeds are sent here for safe and secure long-term storage in cold and dry rock vaults.

03/06/2021: This week, more than 30,000 additional seed bags from five continents were deposited for safe storage in the seed vault on Svalbard. It is the largest seed deposit since the pandemic was confirmed.

A global backstop

The vault hold the seeds of many tens of thousands of varieties of essential food crops such as beans, wheat and rice. In total, the vault now holds seeds of more than 4000 plant species. These seed samples are duplicates of seed sample stores in national, regional and international gene banks.

Way up north, in the permafrost, 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, is the world's largest secure seed storage. A new video produced by the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food tells the story about the Vault.

The Seed Bank was established and is fully funded by the Norwegian government, with the responsibility for operations assigned to The Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The Ministry coordinates daily operation with the Nordic Gene Resource Centre and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and receives guidance from a dedicated international council established to advise the Seed Bank.