INSIDE THE SVALBARD GLOBAL SEED VAULT, AND WHY THE WORLD'S MOST IMPORTANT ROOM MIGHT BE UNDER THREAT
With biodiversity dramatically decreasing due to a global monoculturing of agriculture , the circa 1750 gene banks or ‘crop diversity’ collections all over the world, in which the immense variety of seeds -and mainly the threatened ones- are preserved, have become quintessential for the future. Yet threatened by war, hit by natural disasters, or woefully underfunded, many of these banks are threatened in their existence themselves. Excavated in a mountain on the Norwegian Island of Spitsbergen, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault therefore offers them the possibility to store and preserve ‘spare’ copies of their collections. The remote location was chosen because it seemed to guarantee maximal safety. But due to Global Warming, and only ten years after it was taken in use, there are already signs that this Doomsday Refuge or Food Ark might not be a safe as expected.
biodiversity has decreased to the point that now only about 30 crops provide 95% of human food-energy needs
Over the past 50 years, agricultural practices have changed dramatically. While technological advances have allowed large-scale crop production, and crop yields have increased, biodiversity has decreased to the point that now only about 30 crops provide 95% of human food-energy needs. Only 10% of the rice varieties that China used in the 1950s are still used today, for example. The U.S. has lost over 90% of its fruit and vegetable varieties since the 1900s. Since this mono-culturing of agriculture also leaves food supplies more susceptible to threats such as diseases and drought, gene banks have become a resource of vital importance, holding the keys to the future of global food security.
There are as many as 1750 ‘crop diversity’ collections all over the world, a global network that not only preserves, but also shares seeds to further agricultural research and develop new varieties. Yet many are located in politically or environmentally unstable countries. Gene banks in Afghanistan and Iraq have been destroyed, for example, while the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), a global agricultural-research organization that had been based in Syria, was recently also forced to flee its headquarters, just outside of Aleppo, because of the civil war, leaving behind one of the world’s most valuable seed collections, with some of the oldest varieties of wheat and barley. It is not just armed conflict that threatens gene banks. Some have been hit by natural disasters, like the Philippine national gene bank, which was damaged by flooding from a typhoon and later by a fire. And a lack of resources is probably the biggest threat. Woefully underfunded, many banks don't have the means to properly store or protect the seeds they hold.
Opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is essentially a huge safety deposit box. It preserves a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicate samples, or "spare" copies, of seeds held in traditional gene banks and storehouses of agricultural biodiversity, and serves as a back up, safety net and refuge against accidental loss of diversity in case of crises. Mostly dubbed the “doomsday” vault and Food Ark, these nick names might conjures up an image of a reserve of seeds for use in case of an apocalyptic event or a global catastrophe in a distant future, but the vault was also and mainly designed to protect against much smaller, localized destruction and threats facing gene banks, such as losses caused by mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, or funding cuts. “There are big and small doomsdays going on around the world every day.” - says Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, officially known as the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which plays a key role in the management of the vault.
It is away from the places on earth where you have war and terror, and everything maybe you are afraid of in other places
The idea of the vault was already conceived in the 1980s by conservationist Cary Fowler, in association with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), but only started to become reality after an International Seed Treaty negotiated by the U.N. was signed in 2001. The facility was built deep in the bowels of an icy sandstone mountain on Spitsbergen, an island that is part of Norway's Svalbard archipelago, above the Arctic Circle, about 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole, It would have been difficult to find a place more remote. It is the farthest north you can fly on a commercial airline, and apart from the nearby town of Longyearbyen, it is a vast white expanse of frozen emptiness.The vault's only neighbor is a similar and adjacent repository buried away in a nearby mine: the Arctic World Archive, which aims to provide a similar service for data to the world’s governments and private institutions, etched as code into reels of film that should last for a millennium. “It is away from the places on earth where you have war and terror, and everything maybe you are afraid of in other places.” says Bente Naeverdal, a property manager who oversees the day-to-day operation of the vault.
The icy wilderness of Svalbard was also considered ideal because Spitsbergen lacks tectonic activity and has permafrost, which aids preservation. Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration units that cool the seeds to the internationally recommended standard of −18°C, ensuring low metabolic activity and delaying seed aging. Although constructed 120 meters deep inside the mountain, the underground cavern is still 130 meters above sea-level, and it was estimated that this would guarantees that the site would remain dry, even if the icecaps would melt. If the equipment fails, at least several weeks would elapse before the facility would rise to the surrounding sandstone bedrock's temperature of −3 °C, and two centuries to warm to 0 °C. A feasibility study prior to construction thus determined that the vault could preserve seeds from most major food crops for hundreds, some possibly thousands of years.
The facility costed roughly 9 million Euros in construction, funded entirely by the Norwegian government. Though there are no permanent staff on-site, it is managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, under terms spelled out in a tripartite agreement with the Norwegian government and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Storing seeds in the vault is free to end users, and operational costs are paid by the Norwegian government finances upkeep of the structure itself. and the Global Crop Diversity Trust, that provides most of the other annual costs and gets its primary funding from governments worldwide and various organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Only the entrance to the facility is visible from the outside, but strangely enough, no effort has been made to keep the rectangular wedge of concrete that juts out starkly against the snowy landscape hidden. On the contrary, an illuminated artwork by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne that runs the length of the building’s flat roof and down the front face of the concrete entry, celebrating the light in the Arctic, marks the location from a great distance, and acts like a beacon, in what looks like a Bond movie set, making the doomsday nickname seems eerily apt. Inside, behind the huge steel the entrance leads to a small tunnel-like room filled with the loud whirring noise of electricity and cooling systems that keep the temperature within the vault consistent. Through one door is a wide concrete tunnel illuminated by strip lighting and leading 130 meters down into the mountain. At the end of this corridor is a chamber, an added layer of security to protect the vaults containing the seeds. There are three vaults leading off from the chamber, but only one is currently in use. In here, someone aptly named it the world's most important room, the seeds are stored in vacuum-packed silver packets and test tubes in large plastic tole containers that are stacked on floor-to-ceiling metal shelving racks, each of the four-ply sealed envelopes containing some 500 copies of the same seed.
Approximately 1,5 million distinct seed samples of agriculture crops are thought to exist, while the facility has a capacity to conserve 4,5 million. By 2013, approximately one-third of the general diversity stored in gene banks globally was represented at the Seed Vault.. In 2017 it stored samples of seeds,from more than 930,000 varieties of food crops, Together, they represent 13,000 years of agricultural history, says Brian Lainoff, lead partnerships coordinator of the Crop Trust. Only one, very recent, category is missing. Norwegian law has prohibited the storing of genetically modified seeds at the vault.The seeds lying in the deep freeze of the vault include wild and old varieties, many of which are not in general use anymore. And many don’t exist outside of the seed collections they came from. But the genetic diversity contained in the vault could provide the DNA traits needed to develop new strains for whatever challenges the world or a particular region will face in the future. One of the 200,000 varieties of rice within the vault could have the trait needed to adapt rice to higher temperatures, for example, or to find resistance to a new pest or disease. This is particularly important with the challenges of climate change, says Haga: “Not too many think about crop diversity as being so fundamentally important, but it is. It is almost as important as water and air. Seeds generally are the basis for everything - not only for what we eat, but also for what we wear, and nature all about us.”
Storage is free of charge, while the seed vault functions like a safe deposit box in a bank: the Government of Norway owns the facility and the depositing gene banks own the seeds they send. The deposit of samples in Svalbard does not constitute a legal transfer of genetic resources. In gene bank terminology this is called a 'black box' arrangement: each depositor signs a Deposit Agreement with NordGen, acting on behalf of Norway, and keeps the ownership of the seeds and the sole right of access, in order to avoid any possible political disputes. Researchers, plant breeders, and other groups wishing to access seed samples cannot do so through the seed vault; they must instead request samples from the depositing gene banks. No one has access to anyone else's seeds from the seed vault.
The Crop Trust is also raising money for an endowment fund to ensure that the other world’s 1,750 gene-bank facilities are able to continue acting as guarantors of global biodiversity. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), for instance, that was forced to flee its headquarters in Syria, re-established its headquarters in Morocco and Lebanon, and restarted the gene bank in 2015, with help of the Svalbard vault—which authorized the first withdrawal of seeds in its history. Woken from their icy slumber, the seeds were planted in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and in Morocco, and their offspring were carefully collected and processed to return also to the vault.
But especially since October 2016, questions have been raised on the safety of the Svalbard seed vault itself. In the years since its opening, the vault saw minor water intrusion at its entrance during the annual spring permafrost thawing, while warmer temperatures and heavy rainfall in October 2016 caused significantly greater amounts of water to inundate the entrance, While it is common for some water to seep into the vault's 100-meter entrance tunnel during the warmer spring months, in this case the water encroached 15 meters into the tunnel before freezing. The facility's design ensured that the water froze after several meters and the seeds were not at risk. But nevertheless, as a result, Norwegian public works agency plans to make improvements to the tunnel to prevent any such intrusion in the future, including waterproofing the tunnel walls, removing heat sources from the tunnel, and digging exterior
If in the long run, these extra security measures might be sufficient? One might wonder.