The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on the island of Spitsbergen midway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, only opens up a few times a year to limit the outside world’s exposure to its seed banks. Sudan, Uganda, New Zealand, Germany and Lebanon deposited millet, sorghum and wheat seeds as backups to their own collections on Monday.
“It is a long-term seed storage facility, built to stand the test of time – and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters. The seed vault represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity,” the vault’s official website reads.
“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, such as lack of funding or 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,” it further states.
The International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (Icarda), which relocated its headquarters from Aleppo to Beirut in 2012 due to the Syrian conflict, also deposited around 8 000 samples.
“Icarda is an international organisation that for over four decades undertakes research-for-development to provide innovative, science-based agricultural solutions that improve the livelihoods resilience of rural dryland communities. Our non-profit solutions based on field-proven science are widely adopted across Asia, Africa and the Middle East,” according to the Icarda website.
Insuring food supply for future generations
In 2015, Icarda made the first seed extraction from the vault to replace a war-damaged collection, followed by two further withdrawals in 2017 and 2019 to rebuild its own collections, which are presently stored in Lebanon and Morocco.
“The fact that the seed collection destroyed in Syria during the civil war has been systematically rebuilt shows that the vault functions as an insurance for current and future food supply and for local food security,” says Anne Beathe Tvinnereim, Norway’s international development minister.
“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. The purpose of the vault is to store duplicates [backups] of seed samples from the world’s crop collections,” the vault adds.
‘Permafrost and thick rock ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power. The vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It will secure millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final backup.”