The Global Seed Vault in Svalbald, Norway is arguably one of the most important facilities in the world, holding nearly a million samples of the world’s food seeds. Come see how this facility supports the world-wide movement to protect seed species from around the globe to help ensure future food security.
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Food Seeds are the Key to Food Security
As a gardener you may have an interest in seed saving for your vegetable garden. It’s a simple, free way to gather seeds for planting crops the following year. A common example is keeping heirloom veggie seeds, year after year. But what if disaster strikes and your seed collection is destroyed? And your neighbour’s seed collection. And the shop where you also buy seeds? Or your entire region?
What if this happened to the farms that provide our food?
Real threats like this occur around our world every year. This is why both formal and informal seed-saving networks are critical for our future. Without these seeds, we do not have food security.
Along with the millions of people—citizen seed-savers—around the world who keep and exchange seeds (both food crops and other plants), we have seed banks and vaults to further protect these genes. These facilities provide the best possible storage conditions to ensure the safekeeping of seeds, protecting a diverse range of species and sub-species.
They cannot, however, ensure the safekeeping of food seeds for all of us to access. Each seed bank can only withdraw the same seeds it has contributed, should the need arise. This means you are only protected if your region has made the effort to bank your own seeds and maintain viable seeds in the vault.
If the issue of food security and preserving species diversity interests you, it’s worth checking if your area has a seed bank and whether they have taken the step of storing duplicate samples at a proper seed vault.
About the Global Seed Vault
I first ‘saw’ the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, when I stumbled across it while viewing Google street view (on Google Earth) a few years ago. As it turns out, this odd-looking building sticking out of the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere above the arctic circle may be one of the most important buildings on earth.
Stored inside this facility are samples of hundreds of thousands of the world’s food seeds. With seed banks (gene banks) around the world vulnerable to natural disasters and other problems, this storage tunnel is one of our main backup systems.
I’ll walk you through the facility, its history, and how it works.
From one perspective, it’s just a tunnel that leads to a room with bunch of shelves. But the location and design of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault have helped give it a mystique that has drawn worldwide attention to critical issues surrounding biodiversity and the conservation of plant varieties.
The Seed Vault contains seeds of nearly a million varieties of food crops.
The Seed Vault contains seeds of nearly a million varieties of food crops, stored 120 metres (400 feet) inside a snow-covered mountain in Svalbard—a remote Norwegian archipelago located in the Arctic Ocean about 800 miles from the North Pole and 500 miles above the most northern part of continental Norway. It sits just east of the northern part of Greenland.
All the seeds in the Seed Vault can be found in various seed banks scattered around the world, where they are kept to preserve the varieties of species that have developed over the course of millennia as plants adapted to different climates and conditions and developed resistance to diseases and other threats.
Internationally, there are more than 1,500 seed banks, built to preserve this biodiversity from threats like habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, climate change, disease, narrow ranges of commercial crop cultivation and many others. Many varieties have been lost, and once they’re gone, they’re no longer an option that we can draw upon for our food in the future as conditions continue to change over time.
Seed banks are not immune from threats.
But seed banks themselves are not immune from threats. Around the world, many of the areas with the widest native biodiversity are also regions with considerable political unrest. Seed banks have been plundered during wars and disputes, and natural disasters like earthquakes and floods have also destroyed major seed collections. Some suffer from neglect, a lack of funding, or just bad management.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault acts as an insurance policy for seed banks—a “safety duplication” that ensures that crop varieties remain preserved even if something catastrophic befalls a particular seed bank. It’s like keeping copies of your photos and other valuable files in the Internet cloud where they’ll be safe even if disaster strikes your home.
The location of the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard provides several advantages. Seeds are best preserved in very low temperatures and the vault is deep in the Arctic in permafrost. In this location, the natural temperature in the vault should go no higher than -4°C. And that’s still not cold enough for optimal seed storage—even at this latitude, the vault needs to be cooled down to -18°C—but if something were to happen to the cooling system, the natural temperature is low enough to keep the samples frozen.
The storage vaults are cooled to -18°C.
The region is geologically stable, so there should be no threats of earthquakes and other disasters. Humidity levels are low, and dryness is also critical in seed storage. The vault is in the mountains well above sea level, so that even if water levels rise due to warming temperatures they won’t reach the height of the Seed Vault. (Stories earlier this year about “flooding” at the entrance of the Seed Vault proved to be an exaggeration, although steps were taken to reduce the amount of seasonal meltwater that could get inside the outer doors.)
Construction of the Seed Vault began in 2006 and it opened two years later. The images it evokes are a combination of the Batcave, a Bond villain’s lair, and Superman’s icy Fortress of Solitude. There may be well over a thousand other seed banks in the world, and the Millennium Seed Bank in the UK can call itself “the greatest concentration of living seed-plant biodiversity on Earth”. It stores seeds from more plant species; Svalbard is more focused on variations within crop species and has far more samples), but there’s a reason the Svalbard vault has captured the public imagination and why people have written books and made films about it (and write blog posts).
The only part of the Seed Vault that’s visible to the public is the exterior of the entrance.
The only part of the Seed Vault that’s visible to the public is the exterior of the entrance, and they made the most of even that limited opportunity, with architecture that recalls the monolith in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, except this one is embedded in a mountain. At the top of the entrance is the installation “Perpetual Repercussion” by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, consisting of stainless steel triangles and other reflective and refractive components that shine light in all directions.
Once inside the entrance doors, there are hardhats to wear and studded rubber overshoes to give you better traction on the frosty floors. If you’re old enough to remember the opening of the 1960s TV series Get Smart, the entrance to the Seed Vault is like the entrance to CONTROL headquarters, with a straight-line path interrupted by doors for added security—except that at the Seed Vault, by the time you’re at the end, the doors are covered in frost.
The total capacity of the vault is approximately 2.3 billion seeds
After you’ve walked through the entrance tunnel and through the next set of doors, you’re in a steel tunnel that takes you past a small office and control room (there is no washroom on site), to the next set of doors which go into the main chamber. The walls here are carved out of the rock of the mountain and there are three final locked doors, each leading to one of the vaults. The vaults are 27 metres (89 feet) long and 10 metres (33 feet) wide and can store 1.5 million samples each. On average, a sample is about 500 seeds, so that’s a total capacity of about 2.3 billion seeds. At this point, only one of the three vaults is in use, so there’s plenty of room to continue to expand the collection. In the vault are four aisles providing access to tall shelving units containing sealed boxes of seed samples, each sample is also sealed in three-ply aluminum foil pouches. Video surveillance cameras in the vault capture any activities.
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The Government of Norway owns the facility and paid for its construction, and continues to oversee ongoing maintenance and physical operations through its agency Statsbygg, which manages thousands of government-funded buildings and outdoor areas in Norway including museums, opera houses and universities.
The Government of Norway paid for the Seed Vault and oversees its maintenance.
Along with the government, there are two other major partners in the Global Seed Vault: the Crop Trust (originally called the Global Crop Diversity Trust), an international organization based in Germany, and NordGen—the Nordic Genetic Resource Center—which manages the deposits in the vault and updates the database.
Local seeds ->Regional Gene Banks ->Global Seed Vault
Individuals cannot send seeds directly to the vault. All seeds deposited in the vault come from gene banks (seed banks) around the world.
On the NordGen website, you’ll find details on all the deposits in the Seed Vault, including the species, depositor, date of deposit and other information. It turns out that India has placed the most seeds in the vault, while Mexico has the largest number of samples.
The most common seeds in the vault represent basic food needs.
The most common crops deposited in the vault depend on how you’re counting, but among the top of the lists are rice, common wheat, corn, finger millet, kikuyu grass, broom corn, and kidney beans.
The deposited boxes can only be accessed by the seed banks that placed them in the Seed Vault and those seed banks remain the owners of the seeds. The Seed Vault established a standard box size for everyone to use (with just a little variance allowed) and they will fit on the shelves when stacked.
The seeds can only be accessed by the seed banks that provided them.
The Vault operates like a bring-your-own-box safety deposit box at a bank, although in the case of the Seed Vault, depositors hope they’ll never need to get their deposits back (but it has happened—a seed bank with a site in Aleppo, Syria needed to withdraw seeds from the Seed Vault after losing samples because of the conflict in Syria). There is no cost to the seed banks to use the Seed Vault.
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The facility is usually unstaffed, and they try to group activities at the three times a year when new seeds are deposited. So that’s when they’ll hold tours for media, politicians, and other VIPs.
The Seed Vault is not open to the public.
While they receive a lot of requests, there are no tours offered to the public, so the NordGen website suggests taking a selfie at the entrance and, if that’s not enough, there’s also a small exhibit at the nearby Svalbard Museum.
The origin story for the Global Seed Vault has different starting points and different emphases, depending on who you ask. Most accounts cite the pivotal role of Cary Fowler, a Tennessee native who received his bachelor’s degree from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia in 1971 before embarking on a decades-long career in conservation and crop diversity. Fowler served as the executive director of the Crop Trust from 2005 until 2012 and was in that role when the Seed Vault was created.
“Fowler conceptualized the vault, headed the committee that developed the plan for the facility and is the founding chair of the international council that has overseen the vault since its inception,” said the U.S. National Public Radio program Fresh Air earlier this year.
The events of 9/11 brought many to question security issues including global food security.
Fowler sometimes cites 9/11 as an event that triggered the thought of a global seed vault, although that seems unlikely, since the idea had been discussed before 2001. But it makes for a good story, and there’s no question that 9/11 changed our notions of what a safe location looks like.
Other versions of the Seed Vault’s origins go back many years earlier to the 1980s when seeds began being stored in an unused mine in Svalbard. Attempts to bring a global seed bank to the site initially hit a dead end because the necessary international agreements—the legal framework around the rights of countries, institutions, and others—weren’t in place and there was disagreement about who should own the seeds and who should be able to access them, among other issues. Fowler credits the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which became effective in 2004, for making the Svalbard Global Seed Vault possible.
The Global Seed Vault is located near the Svalbard airport and about three kilometres (two miles) outside of Longyearbyen, the largest settlement on Svalbard, with about 2,100 residents. One of the first things visitors to the town are told is how to act during an encounter with a polar bear—and they’d do well to listen carefully. Polar bears are plentiful in the area, and there’s no hospital in Longyearbyen or anywhere else in Svalbard. While the local population is small, there is an increasing number of tourists coming to Longyearbyen—30,000 a year, according to the museum.
Svalbard attracts tourists despite its remote arctic location.
Longyearbyen is also home to the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS)—which isn’t actually a university, but a research and education centre that calls itself “the world’s northernmost higher education institution.” UNIS is also where the museum is located. Each year, hundreds of students travel here—about half from Norway and the rest from countries around the world—to study the Arctic and its biology, geology, and geophysics, while sitting about as far into the Arctic as you can get. All instruction is in English.
Last year, Fowler published a book, Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault telling the story of the Seed Vault. A 77-minute documentary film, Seeds of Time, directed by Sandy McLeod and featuring Fowler, was released in 2015.
- Global Seed Vault | official website
- Crop Trust | How the vault is managed and interactive visit (it’s cool!)
- Database of seeds in the vault | nordgen.org
- Cary Fowler | “Father” of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault
- Seeds of Time | Documentary about seed banks and threats to food security
I hope you enjoyed this profile on the Global Seed Vault.
Thank you to my beloved husband for his (major) help with this article.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛