The Svalbard Global Seed Vault

By | November 11, 2021

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Entrance to the Seed Vault. (Subiet/Wikimedia Commons)

Tunneled into the icy tundra of Svalbard, Norway is a vault that holds the entire future of agriculture. Opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the first of its kind, a gene bank for collecting and preserving every single unique set of genes for the millions of varieties of crops on earth. Seed banks have been around since the 1920s, but many of them have gone under due to environmental disasters, war, and plain old lack of funding.

That's bad because once a crop goes extinct, it's gone forever, and we don't know what the future holds in terms of the environment. Some traits may fare better than others, but without the genetic data, there will be no way to breed crops in the direction humanity needs them to evolve. For example, if you've ever heard someone born before the 1950s complain that bananas used to be sweeter and more flavorful, that's not just nostalgia goggles taken to biological extremes. They were literally eating different bananas, specifically the Gros Michel, which was nearly wiped out by the Panama Disease. Today, we eat stupid Cavendish bananas.

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Seeds of various plants. (Alexander Klepnev/Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1990s, Afghanistan almost lost all of their seed banks due to regional conflicts, and after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Professor Cary Fowler of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences became obsessed with the idea of creating a global seed vault somewhere remote where no war or natural disaster could touch it as a sort of backup for the world's gene banks. In 2004, he convinced the Norwegian government to fund a feasibility study for the project.

Quickly, they decided on Svalbard for its remoteness, peaceful political climate, and blisteringly cold ecological one. As the seeds needed to be preserved at –18 degrees Celsius (–0.4 degrees Fahrenheit), it helped to build the vault somewhere cold enough to keep the seeds frozen in the event of a blackout or other catastrophe. The location also allowed them to build directly into the side of a mountain, leaving only the entrance in the open air, which greatly reduced the need for security. In fact, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault has no permanent staff at all, since anyone who wants to break in would first have to defeat the hellish terrain and possibly a polar bear or two.