Stories

Planting the seed

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Opened on 26th February 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (otherwise known as the doomsday vault) is located 800 miles from the the North Pole on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. All you can see from the outside is a rectangle of metal and light, jutting out from a nearby mountainside.

The site was chosen because there’s no earthquake activity; it’s also high enough above sea level to stay dry, even if the ice caps melt. The region’s permafrost means that everything is prevented from decaying – just as if it’s in the biggest fridge in the world. Even if a nuclear war broke out, remote Svalbard should stay protected.

The floor area of the doomsday vault covers 11,000 sq ft and extends nearly 500ft into a mountain; there’s enough space to keep 4.5 million distinct seed samples. Government funded construction projects in Norway that exceed a certain budget must include artwork, so artist Dyveke Sanne was commissioned to create a light installation on the site. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault won the Norwegian Lighting Prize for 2009; here in London we got the ‘Walkie- Talkie’ and melting cars.

The vault is jointly managed by the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen). A study carried out before construction determined that the vault could preserve most major seeds for at least hundreds of years. Some, including potentially important grains, could survive much longer possibly thousands of years.

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Imagine a large-scale Iceland (the high street frozen food store, not the country we featured in issue 07) but instead of bumping into Peter Andre amongst the chicken curry ready meals, what’s on offer is over 865,000 seed samples. The seeds themselves are packed in special four-ply packets, heat sealed to take out all the moisture and stored at a cool -18°C on metal shelving racks.

There are over 1,700 seed banks all over the world, but many of them are vulnerable to natural or man- made disasters, like someone unplugging the freezer. Svalbard is the ultimate backup. In September 2015 ICARDA, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, requested access to the seed vault and its supplies – they asked for 128 crates of seeds, 38,000 samples in total. ICARDA works in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia and their request for seeds included samples of wheat, lentils, chickpea and barley that had been in storage in Aleppo, Syria.

That facility has been damaged by the ongoing war; staff fled the scene along with millions of others. It’s not the first time war has affected gene banks. The national seed banks in Afghanistan and Iraq have been lost completely due to conflict. ICARDA has moved its headquarters from Aleppo to Beirut and let’s be honest, if you’re moving to Beirut for safety, you know you’re in trouble.

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Commenting on ICARDA’s request, Brian Lain of Crop Trust said: “We did not expect a retrieval this early, but [we] knew in 2008 that Syria was in for an interesting couple of years. This is why we urged them to deposit so early on.” The ICARDA seeds will be used to regenerate crops at research stations in Lebanon and Morocco. The supplies taken out of storage in Svalbard will be replaced eventually with some of these newly generated seeds.

Many of ICARDA’s seeds were originally collected decades ago, so scientists would have a hard time finding many of the required varieties now. Hidden within the frozen collection in the doomsday seed vault, plants that can survive new environments and thrive in a changing climate could be discovered. With global crop yields slowing down – even before global warming really kicks in – and populations growing, these seeds could be the crucial key to building new crops to feed the world.

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