March 1, 2019

The Svalbard Seed Vault: Saving our Global Food Security, History, and Quality

Written by Garret Weigel | Food Safety

Over the past 50 years, global agriculture has transitioned almost entirely to an industrial model focusing on the cultivation of monocrops on huge tracts of farmland. One consequence of this practice is that biodiversity has decreased so much that now only 30 crops provide 95% of global food-energy and nutritional needs. In fact, since the 1960s, the U.S. has lost more than 90% of its varieties of fruits and vegetables – including many heirloom breeds known in culinary and restaurant circles for their exquisite taste.


More importantly, monoculture and loss of biodiversity leaves the global food supply vulnerable to catastrophic threats, such as drought or disease, which can unfortunately lead to famine. Global population is projected to reach 11 billion by 2100. Imagine the human suffering if staple crops such as wheat or corn were to be devastated by a pest infestation, massive flooding, or an incurable fungus. Worse, the extinction of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of the dinosaurs.


The Mission of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Recognizing these threats at the turn of the 21st century, an American agriculturalist, Cary Fowler, partnered with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) to open a secure seed bank in Norway. Called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, its primary purpose is to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds from all over the world. Opened in 2008, the vault represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity, with a storage capacity of 4.5 million samples. Currently it holds nearly a million samples originating from almost every country across the globe and representing more than 13,000 years of agricultural history.


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Worldwide, about 1,750 gene banks hold seed collections for safekeeping, but are vulnerable to natural or manmade regional and global catastrophes, including war and the many effects of climate change. The Vault is certainly designed to protect against such calamities. Yet Fowler’s more pressing reason to create a backup storage facility for these gene banks was the smaller, localized threats such as mismanagement, funding cuts, and equipment failures.


How the Vault Works

Every component of the Vault’s design and construction serves the purpose of preserving seeds for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Its location in the Norwegian town of Spitsbergen, only 800 miles from the North Pole, is considered ideal for several reasons: the location is not prone to earthquakes, has a crust of permafrost which aids cooling, and rises 430 feet above sea level, which means it would remain dry even as the ice caps melt.


Surrounded by a frigid climate and burrowed 390 feet inside of a sandstone mountain, the seed bank is also cooled by refrigeration units to the internationally recommended standard of −18°C. If the equipment fails, at least several weeks will elapse before the facility rises to the surrounding sandstone bedrock's temperature of −3°C, due to the natural freezing capacity of the permafrost. Remarkably, scientists estimate that it would take two centuries to warm to 0°C. Added protection comes from the lack of humidity and oxygen inside of the vault, where the seeds are packaged in special three-ply foil packets and sealed to exclude moisture to ensure low metabolic activity and delay seed aging.


Why the Vault Matters

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the Noah’s Ark for plants, preserving a diversity of crops for future generations. By themselves, the seeds have little monetary value. But they offer hope for continued global food security whatever damage the Earth inadvertently suffers.


For many who work in the restaurant industry, especially chefs and their devoted foodie customers, the Vault can also be recognized at a safeguard of vegetables and plants that actually taste good – not merely the meager supermarket varieties cultivated for transportation and shelf life at the expense of flavor and texture.


Just a few examples indicate the loss of culinary diversity over the last century:

  • One hundred years ago, more than 7,000 species of apples were grown in the U.S. Now, according to by Fowler, all but 300 are extinct.
  • China is believed to have lost 90% of its rice varieties, many of which had been cherished for their unique taste and texture differences for thousands of years.
  • At the turn of the 20th century, U.S. seed catalogues offered more than 400 varieties of peas. Now, almost all of the commercial crop is grown from only two.


The Vault’s preservation of diverse breeds of seed may be the only way to save the history of global cuisines, and the way foods used to taste before being limited to only the choices that work well for industrial, rather than culinary, purposes. By stockpiling the DNA traits that might be needed to develop new strains to replace those that are now extinct, we increase both food security and food quality.


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