Deep inside a mountain on the remote island of Spitsbergen, 650 miles from the North Pole, lies the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

The vault contains the largest collection of crop biodiversity in the world and serves as a global insurance policy against devastation from climatic events and other disasters. It currently stores more than 930,000 crop samples from nearly every country in the world and holds the most diverse collection of food crops in the world.

Carved nearly 500 feet into the mountain, the vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million varieties of crops. Each variety contains on average 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds may be stored. Priority is given to crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture.

The focus is on safeguarding as much of the world’s unique genetic material as possible and avoiding duplication. It is designed to secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. This vault is the final back up.

It is a fail-safe seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters.

Halfway between Norway and the North Pole, Svalbard is an ideal location for long-term seed storage for several reasons:

• Svalbard is the farthest north a person can fly on a scheduled flight, offering a remote location that is nevertheless accessible

• The location inside "Platåberget" (“plateau mountain") increases security and provides unparalleled insulation properties

• The area is geologically stable, humidity levels are low and the vault is well above sea level

• The permafrost offers natural freezing which is a cost effective and it can ensure the continued viability of the seeds if the electricity supply should fail

The seeds are stored at minus 18 degrees Celsius. They are heat sealed in custom made three-ply foil packages placed in sealed boxes and stored on shelves inside the vault. The low temperature and moisture levels ensure low metabolic activity, so the seeds will be viable for decades, centuries, or in some cases thousands of years.

Some crops can survive for decades but others appear capable of surviving for thousands of years in cold storage. Eventually, all seeds lose the ability to germinate and die. Before this happens, seeds are taken from the stored samples and planted. Fresh, new seed is then harvested and placed in storage, perpetuating the original variety.

It was the recognition of the vulnerability of the world’s genebanks that sparked the idea of establishing a global seed vault to serve as a backup storage facility.

Worldwide, more than 1,700 genebanks 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, such as lack of funding or poor management.

The national seed bank of the Philippines was damaged by flooding and later destroyed by a fire and the seed banks of Afghanistan and Iraq have been completely lost. Even something as mundane as a poorly functioning freezer can ruin an entire collection. The seed vault at Svalbard exists to ensure that unique diversity held in genebanks in developing countries is not lost forever if an accident occurs.

Plant breeders and researchers depend on seed banks around the world to obtain varieties with useful traits that they need. If those seed banks later lose their own resources, the collections can be restored by getting the copies back from Svalbard.

The loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal or any other form of life. Svalbard, then, is an insurance policy not just for other seed banks but for the planet.


Did you know?

Genetically modified seeds are prohibited from storage in Svalbard at this time due to Norwegian law

Svalbard Global Seed Vault is owned by the Norwegian government and operated under a three-party agreement between the Norwegian Government, NordGen and the Crop Trust

Conservationist Cary Fowler, in association with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research started the vault in 2008

Storing seeds in the vault is free and Norway and the Crop Trust paying for operational costs

Depositors to the Seed Vault still own the samples that they deposit and only they can retrieve the material if required

The Kingdom of Norway spent approximately US$9 million building the vault

Although it is considered impossible to chart how much crop diversity has been lost, an example can help: in 1903 US farmers used 578 varieties of beans but 80 years later just 32 still existed, protected in genebanks

The entrance to the vault flooded last summer as record warm temperatures lead to permafrost melting so the Norwegian government is redesigning some parts of the vault and permafrost is to be monitored


The system in practice

In September the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) deposited over 7,500 seed samples for safekeeping in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. At the same time, ICARDA retrieved 52,451 samples which had been sent to Svalbard from its genebank in Aleppo, Syria. This is part of ICARDA’s on-going efforts to protect its globally important collection of landraces and wild relatives. It’s a crucial mission in light of the security situation in Aleppo where the Center’s main genebank remains active yet inaccessible.

Dr. Ali Shehaded of ICARDA said, “We are so happy that we were foresighted enough to secure our valuable seed collection in Svalbard, and that we are able to get viable seeds of good quality back now. The deposit, withdrawal, and transport of the seeds may require a lot of resources and hard work, however, compared to the value of these seeds for future food supplies and global food security, the costs are small.”


This article was first published in Smallholder magazine. To read more like it why not subscribe to the monthly magazine.