Svalbard Global Seed Vault: seeding our future

  • A dimly lit corridor deep inside the vault on the day the first batch of seeds was delivered. Image credit: Marie Tefre/Svalbard Global Seed Vault
  • Artist’s impression of the Svalbard seed vault, a “treasure house” buried deep inside a distinctly cold mountain off the coast of Norway. Image credit: Global Crop Diversity Trust
  • Set against a backdrop of stark mountains and snow-covered wastes, the entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has a rugged beauty all its own. Image credit: Marie Tefre/Svalbard Global Seed Vault
Date:1 January 2013 Tags:, ,

Preserving seed from food plants is a critical element in the ongoing effort to preserve the world’s biodiversity while adapting to climate change and global warming, thereby ensuring a reliable supply of food for the world’s population for the foreseeable future. There are hundreds of gene banks around the world, but some of them are vulnerable to war, natural disasters or more mundane factors such as inadequate management or insufficient money. Thus, the creation of a “central bank” for the world’s seeds – primarily of food plants – was a no-brainer. They built the Svalbard Global Seed Vault inside a very cold mountain…

It’s been a long and difficult journey. The history of Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault goes back to the early 1980s, when the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NBG) first mooted a safety deposit for seeds in permafrost. A remote territory called Svalbard – along with Greenland and the Jotunheim mountains – was identified as a possible location.

After visiting a disused mine near the settlement of Longyear-byen, the NBG recommended the establishment of a seed vault 300 metres inside a mountain. Located in permafrost at a temperature of minus 3-4 degrees, it appeared to be the perfect spot. NBG’s positive experience led to the question of similar safety deposits being taken up by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and a meeting was arranged between the board and the Norwegian authorities.

In 1989, the IBPGR started surveying alternative sites in Svalbard. Norway offered to take care of the actual construction of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, leaving the FAO and IBPGR to take care of the administrative operating costs through the creation of a fund based on capital from external donors. Then it became a little complicated.

Who owns the world’s heritage, anyway?

During the early 1990s, heated debates broke out between the various FAO member countries over patenting and access to genetic resources. Developing countries wanted to receive part of the proceeds from the commercial seed industry, since the diversity came mainly from their areas, whereas the commercial seed industry wanted free access to such resources and the opportunity to patent the seeds.

It was less than pretty: the parties became polarised and there was little evidence of mutual trust regarding the administration of seed. Later, it became so bad that the IBPGR and FAO eventually had to give up looking for donors and, together with the Norwegian authorities, decided to shelve the plans for an international safety deposit for seeds.

The turning point came in 2004, when the FAO’s International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture came into force and created a new basis for reviving the plan. The Norwegians took up the challenge, and a group of Nordic and international experts under the direction of Noragric at the Norwegian University of Life Scientists were appointed to carry out a preliminary study.

In September 2004, the group put forward an unambiguously positive report which concluded that suitable locations were to be found in Svalbard. The report recommended that a chamber should be built inside the mountain. It was also stressed that the storage of seeds should be done in accordance with international gene bank standards, at minus 18 degrees, and that the seeds should be stored by the “black box” method – that is, only the institution which deposits seeds has the right of ownership and disposition over them.

How many seeds are at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault?

The R75 million facility has three chambers, each of which has the capacity to store 1,5 million seed samples. Even though the facility is owned by Norway, its keepers stress that the samples stored in the vault are “indisputably the property of the depositor”, whether it be a country, gene bank or institution, and the depositor retains the rights of ownership and disposition.

Is it really necessary to conserve such a big diversity of crops? Short answer: absolutely. Longer answer: different crops varieties have different characteristics, and not all these differences may be visible to the naked eye. Genetic traits may provide differences in disease resistance, adaptability to various soils and climates, different tastes and nutritional qualities. If we ever need to use the potentially unique and sometimes hidden traits found in a particular crop variety, we must ensure that the variety is available.

It’s impossible to know how many plant varieties have been lost, as there is no way of ascertaining how many different types have existed in the past. But there’s no doubt that much diversity has disappeared – and that’s a very bad thing. Extinction is forever, and different varieties of wheat and potato can disappear as permanently as the dinosaurs.

Why Svalbard?

  • As a Norwegian territory, Svalbard enjoys security as well as political and social stability, and the Norwegian authorities demonstrably understand the importance of preserving it as an area of undisturbed nature.
    It has the perfect climate and geology for underground cold storage. Because of the permafrost, the temperature will never rise above minus 3,5 degrees Celsius. The sandstone at Svalbard is stable to build in and low in radiation.
  • Svalbard is part of an isolated archipelago far out in the ocean, located between 74° and 81° N and only 1 000 km from the North Pole. Permafrost provides stable storage conditions for seeds (besides which, there is little risk of local dispersion of seed).
  • The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located right outside Longyearbyen and directly opposite Longyear Airport. The facility is about 130 m above sea level and has been tunnelled 120 m into the mountain, in a stable sandstone situation. Each of the three underground chambers has a volume of about 1 200 m³ (measuring 20 m deep, 10 m wide and 6 m high). The location is high enough to secure the facility against any rise in sea level as a result of global warming.
    The facility’s open location near the town makes monitoring and security easier. Security is the responsibility of the Governor of Svalbard in co-operation with the University of Svalbard (UNIS).

Frequently asked questions

What is a seed vault?

It’s not a gene bank, but rather a safe storage facility. Here duplicate collections of seeds are preserved on behalf of gene banks. The seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will be accessed only when the original seed collections have been lost, for whatever reason.

How many seeds will be stored at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault?

The vault has the capacity to store 4,5 million different seed samples. Each sample will contain on average 500 seeds, to a maximum of 2,25 billion seeds. Svalbard will therefore have the capacity to accommodate all the unique seed samples that are conserved by gene banks. These total approximately 1 400 in more than 100 countries. It also has the capacity to store many new seed samples that may be collected in the future.

What type of seeds may be stored there?

Priority will be given to crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture. This is of the utmost importance for developing countries where food security is a challenge. More than 7 000 plant species have historically been used in human diets; however, fewer than 150 species are used in modern agriculture. Only 12 plant species represent the major vegetable source in today’s menu. Many varieties and great genetic diversity may be found within each plant species; for example, there are more than 100 000 varieties of rice.

How are the seeds stored?

The seeds are stored in minus 18 degrees Celsius. They are sealed in packages (these might be bottles, cans or aluminium foil) that in turn are placed in sealed boxes stored on high shelves inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The low temperature and limited access to oxygen will ensure low metabolic activity and delay the ageing process. The permafrost will ensure the continued viability of the seeds should the electricity supply fail.

How many gene banks are there?

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN lists about 1 400 collections of seeds. Major gene banks include facilities in China, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea, Germany and Canada. There are also gene banks with an international profile. Examples include those operated by the Centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

How many samples do gene banks currently house?

Approximately 6,5 million seeds sample are stored in gene banks today.

Who uses gene banks?

Plant breeders and researchers are the major users. The diversity stored in the gene banks is the raw material for plant breeding and for basic biological research. Several thousand samples are distributed annually for such purposes.

What are the threats to gene banks and their collections?

The biggest threat comes from lack of resources and funding, and poor management can also be a major problem. In the past, gene banks have been subject to natural disasters, war and civil strife.

How long can seeds live in a frozen state?

It varies with the type of crop. Some crops, such as peas, may survive for only 20-30 years. Other crops, such as sunflower and some of the grains, may survive for many decades or even hundreds of years. Eventually, all seeds will lose the ability to germinate; they’ll die. Before this happens, a few seeds are taken from the stored samples and planted. Fresh, new seed is then harvested and placed in storage. This way, the original variety can be perpetuated and last almost forever.

Will GMO seeds be stored at the SGSV?

According to Norwegian gene technology legislation, formulated before the creation of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the importation and storage of GMO seeds will require advance approval. Certain other criteria will apply to “sealed internal use” for research purposes. Until the rules change, long-term storage of GMO seeds in the vault will not be approved.

Related material:
* Video – Take a closer look at the “Doomsday” Svalbard Global Seed Vault.