Seed bank protects food crop genetics

26th March 2018

Buried deep in the icy mountains of a remote island in Norway, is a seed storage facility that currently houses almost 1 million plant seeds from almost every country in the world.  Located 100 meters inside a mountain on the island of Spitsbergen, in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, 1,300 kilometres from the North Pole its purpose is to be the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth.  It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important food crop variety available in the world today.

The location for the seed vault was chosen for various reasons; the area is geologically stable, has low humidity and is well above sea level so is unlikely to flood even if sea levels rise significantly.  A temperature of -18ºC is required for optimal storage of the seeds and the permafrost that the vault is built into provides a cost effective and fail safe method of keeping the seeds frozen naturally.  Although remote, Svalbard is still accessible on a commercial flight.

The vault has the maximum capacity to store 4.5 million varieties of crops which is equivalent to 2.5 billion seeds. It is currently the most diverse collection of food crop seeds in the world ranging from unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato.

The global seed vault in Svalbard was established as the final backup to the 1,700 plus gene banks that exist around the world that hold crop seeds for safe keeping.

But in a cruel twist of fate it seems that the seed vault my not be the all-withstanding fortress it was meant to be. The climate is changing and the northern polar region is warming twice as fast as the global average – and the permafrost that is currently preserving the seeds is melting!  Last year’s record soaring temperatures in the Arctic caused melting and heavy rain that that flooded the start of the tunnel that leads to the vault.  If Arctic winter temperatures continue to rise, the so called ‘Doomsday Vault’ itself may be doomed.

There is a growing acceptance that the world’s food production will need to grow by 50-100% by 2050.  Seafood is the largest contributor to the planet’s protein.   Good fisheries management is the ‘vault’ that must protect our fish stocks.