The gene bank of last resort

Quarterly Report | The Global Seed Vault is designed to withstand all manner of disasters. That will be useful if we cause one that wipes out our food supply

Potatoes check in. We hope they don’t check out (Photo: Global Crop Diversity Trust)

Tore Andre Kjetland Fjeldsbø

Last month, a delegation from Peru went to Svalbard to store their country’s most important heritage: the potato. This mountainous country is the home of the potato, and it is where you find it in the greatest diversity.

During an emotional ceremony, a member of the Peruvian delegation explained, however, that during the past 30 years farmers in his country have had to plant their crops at increasingly higher elevations. As they could now go no further up the mountains, there was but one place left to go: Svalbard.

The reason someone would travel from South America almost all the way to the North Pole is that Svalbard is the site of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a gene bank that stores copies of seeds from other gene banks worldwide. So seriously do the facility’s caretakers take their work that they describe it as “the world’s most important room”.

“This is the backup for seed banks around the world,” Åsmund Asdal of NordGen told NRK, a broadcaster, on the occasion of the Peruvian visit. His firm, along with Global Crop Diversity Trust, is responsible for daily operations of the vault. The Svalbard facility, he explained, gives other seed banks someplace where they could store copies of their own seeds.

The point of a seed bank is to safeguard the genetic diversity of plants for future generations. Today, about 150 different types of food crops are grown worldwide, but they exist in a myriad of varieties. This variety is under threat on a number of fronts though.

The introduction of modern agriculture gave us higher yields, but as farmers started planting mass-produced seeds it reduced the genetic diversity of crops. As the planet warms and as the global population continues to grow, scientists warn that failing to safeguard the diversity of crops could lead to food shortages, should a major crop be affected by an illness.

Opened in 2008 and funded and built by the Norwegian government, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to withstand all sorts of natural or man-made disasters, including nuclear war. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the media is fond of describing the facility in biblical terms; references to a ‘Noah’s ark’ or a ‘doomsday vault’ have long since become commonplace.

There is some irony that the world’s agricultural diversity is safeguarded in a place as barren as Svalbard, but the archipelago is, in fact, nearly ideal for the purpose. Situated in the Arctic Ocean, Svalbard offers a location that is distant from both natural disaster and human calamity. And because the site is built in permafrost, should the unthinkable happen and some sort of catastrophe strike, the seeds would likely survive.

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Such a guarantee of safe storage is, unfortunately, not the case for some of the world’s most important gene banks, a number of which are situated in unstable regions. One recent example is the tragedy of the Aleppo gene bank in Syria. A brutal siege destroyed much of the city, but thanks to the efforts of the bank’s twelve employees, some 80% of the seeds being stored there, most of them drought-resistant grains like barley and wheat, had been sent to Svalbard for safekeeping.

The deposit, however, proved to be only temporary. The group now hopes to re-establish the facility, this time in Lebanon. In order to help those efforts, they have asked to be sent nearly half the seeds they have on deposit in Svalbard, making them the first group to make such a request.

The Peruvians visiting Svalbard do not expect to have to retrieve their deposits anytime soon. But as Alejandro Argumedo, director of ANDES, a Peruvian NGO, said during the event there is comfort in knowing that the future of the potato has been placed in safe-keeping in a Norwegian mountainside.

“The whole weather and the climate is totally different [now, ed.], and it is getting more chaotic all the time,” he told NRK. “So we started saying, we will go to Svalbard, we will go to Svalbard. We will take our seeds and keep them in there, just in case we lose them.”

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

The Rasmussen’s Quarterly Reports provide an in-depth look at an issue or event relating to the Arctic, or a survey about a location in the region. 

Other articles in this report about Svalbard include:
More than just a treaty
The sheriff of Svalbard

Breaking through
It depends on what the definition of ‘in’ is

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