Storing the Seeds of Hope

The Arctic Circle is no place for agriculture.

Only the hardiest plants can survive its snow covered tundras and brutal temperatures. The idea of growing crops there is laughable.

Nonetheless, the farms of the future may not be able to survive without it.

Nearly 400 feet inside a mountain on Spitsbergen island on the Svalbard archipelago in the arctic, lies a massive repository of seeds stored for the explicit purpose of insuring the future of agriculture. The $9 million structure is miles from any farmland, but for good reason. The dense rock and permafrost surrounding the facility assure the seeds stored inside will remain frozen even in the event of power failure.

The brainchild of famed conservationist Cary Fowler, the idea developed more than a decade ago when he served as executive director of the Crop Trust, an international nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of crop diversity. Founded in 2004, the organization was created to ensure the long-term conservation and availability of seeds and genetic resources for agriculture. In essence, it’s a global authority of agricultural development and protection.

In 2006, the Norwegian government started building an enormous vault designed to store the world’s most important crop seeds. 

Between the craggy arctic backdrop and its daunting metal exterior, the vault looks more like a Bond villain’s lair than a seed storage facility. In certain corners of the internet, it serves as fodder for world-government-food-control conspiracy theories. But to the Crop Trust, it’s an important symbol of global agricultural cooperation and advancement. The vault currently houses roughly 930,000 seed varieties collected from more than 1,700 gene banks around the world.

“We are all dependent on each other when it comes to crop diversity,” the organization’s current executive director Marie Haga explains. “No country in the world has everything. The United States has the best crop collection and gene banks in the world, but they have only ten percent of the diversity that exists globally.”

According to Haga, crop diversity is the key to future food availability. Storing 3,500 varieties of potatoes or 200,000 varieties of rice may seem excessive, but even the slightest variation in genetic information might hold the key to developing healthier crops able to withstand potential environmental changes.

“One of them might have the trait we need to breed a plant that can withstand higher temperatures, can grow in soils with higher salinity, contain greater nutritional value, and so on,” Haga says.

The surge in climate change awareness has created a greater understanding of crop diversity’s importance and the Global Seed Vault’s purpose. Selling the scientific community on the organization’s work is easy. The challenge is convincing politicians and policymakers.

“We are starting to see how alarming the consequences of global warming actually are,” she says. “People understand how dramatic it is, but we still need to do a lot to raise awareness.”

Haga recognizes there are downsides to storing seeds in the vault’s environment. Once the seeds are removed from their natural environment and placed in Svalbard, they stop adapting. If material needs to be used to reinforce a failed gene bank, the stored seeds might not do as well back home.

“The basic challenge we face with this science is that the climate changes faster than these plants are able to adapt,” Haga says.

Even as scientists rush to keep pace with nature’s volatility, man-made violence prompted its initial use. Material was first taken out of Svalbard back in 2015, when the gene bank in Aleppo, Syria—according to Haga, one of the most important gene banks in the world—was compromised due to the violence of the Syrian civil war.

“We had been working with the gene bank in Aleppo for six or seven years, and all of their materials were backed up in Svalbard,” Haga says. “So we took out some of the raw material and brought it to Morocco and Lebanon, and we reestablished the gene bank in those two places. Now, the seeds that were brought to Morocco and Lebanon have gone back to Svalbard to be stored.”

In a perfect world, human beings would live in peace and plan for the future. Natural disasters and major weather events are unpredictable and destructive, but sadly, so too is humanity.

“If everything goes well in the world, we don’t need to use materials from there,” Haga says. “If things go wrong, however, it’s very comforting to know that we can go back to Svalbard and use the seeds in other places around the world.”