Svalbard Global Seed Vault
History and museums
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Norwegian: Svalbard globale frøhvelv) is a secure seed bank on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1,300 kilometres (810 mi) from the North Pole. Conservationist Cary Fowler, in association with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), started the vault to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicate samples, or "spare" copies, of seeds held in gene banks worldwide. The seed vault is an attempt to insure against the loss of seeds in other genebanks during large-scale regional or global crises. The seed vault is managed under terms spelled out in a tripartite agreement between the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen).
The Norwegian government entirely funded the vault's approximately NOK 45 million (US$9 million) construction. Storing seeds in the vault is free to end users, with Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust paying for operational costs. Primary funding for the Trust comes from such organisations as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and from various governments worldwide.
The Nordic Gene Bank (NGB) has, since 1984, stored backup Nordic plant germplasm via frozen seeds in an abandoned coal mine at Svalbard, over the years depositing more than 10,000 seed samples of more than 2,000 cultivars for 300 different species. The Nordic collection has for years duplicated seed samples from the Southern African Development Community. Both the Nordic and African collections have been transferred to the new Svalbard Global Seed Vault facility. On 1 January 2008 the Nordic Gene Bank was integrated with NordGen.
Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland's prime ministers ceremonially laid "the first stone" on 19 June 2006.
The seedbank is 120 metres (390 ft) inside a sandstone mountain on Spitsbergen Island, and employs robust security systems. Seeds are packaged in special four-ply packets and heat sealed to exclude moisture. The facility is managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, though there are no permanent staff on-site.
Spitsbergen was considered ideal because it lacked tectonic activity and had permafrost, which aids preservation. Its being 130 metres (430 ft) above sea level will keep the site dry even if the ice caps melt. Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration units that further cool the seeds to the internationally recommended standard of −18 °C (−0.4 °F). If the equipment fails, at least several weeks will elapse before the facility rises to the surrounding sandstone bedrock's temperature of −3 °C (27 °F).
A feasibility study prior to construction determined that the vault could, for hundreds of years, preserve most major food crops' seeds. Some, including those of important grains, could survive far longer—possibly thousands of years.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault officially opened on 26 February 2008. Approximately 1.5 million distinct seed samples of agricultural crops are thought to exist. The variety and volume of seeds stored will depend on the number of countries participating – the facility has a capacity to conserve 4.5 million. The first seeds arrived in January 2008. Five percent of the seeds in the vault, about 18,000 samples with 500 seeds each, come from the Centre for Genetic Resources of the Netherlands (CGN), part of Wageningen University, Netherlands. By 2013, approximately one-third of the genera diversity stored in gene banks globally was represented at the Seed Vault.
Running the length of the facility's roof and down the front face to the entryway is an illuminated artwork named Perpetual Repercussion by the Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne that marks the location of the vault from a distance. In Norway, government-funded construction projects exceeding a certain cost must include artwork. KORO, the Norwegian State agency overseeing art in public spaces, engaged the artist to install lighting that highlights the importance and qualities of Arctic light. The roof and vault entrance are filled with highly reflective stainless steel, mirrors, and prisms. The installation reflects polar light in the summer months, while in the winter, a network of 200 fibre-optic cables gives the piece a muted greenish-turquoise and white light.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault's mission is to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional genebanks. While the popular press has emphasized its possible utility in the event of a major regional or global catastrophe, it will be more frequently accessed when genebanks lose samples due to mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts, and natural disasters. These events occur with some regularity. War and civil strife have a history of destroying some genebanks. The national seed bank of the Philippines was damaged by flooding and later destroyed by a fire; the seed banks of Afghanistan and Iraq have been lost completely. According to The Economist, "the Svalbard vault is a backup for the world's 1,750 seed banks, storehouses of agricultural biodiversity."
Vault seed samples are copies of samples stored in the depositing genebanks. Researchers, plant breeders, and other groups wishing to access seed samples cannot do so through the seed vault; they must instead request samples from the depositing genebanks. The samples stored in the genebanks will, in most cases, be accessible in accordance with the terms and conditions of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, approved by 118 countries or parties.
The seed vault functions like a safe deposit box in a bank. The bank owns the building and the depositor owns the contents of his or her box. The Government of Norway owns the facility and the depositing genebanks own the seeds they send. The deposit of samples in Svalbard does not constitute a legal transfer of genetic resources. In genebank terminology this is called a "black box" arrangement. Each depositor signs a Deposit Agreement with NordGen, acting on behalf of Norway. The Agreement makes clear that Norway does not claim ownership over the deposited samples and that ownership remains with the depositor, who has the sole right of access to those materials in the seed vault. No one has access to anyone else's seeds from the seed vault. The database of samples and depositors is maintained by NordGen.
The Syrian Civil War caused another seed bank, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, to move its headquarters from Aleppo to Beirut. Due to difficulties by ICARDA in transferring its collection, in 2015 the Svalbard Vault authorized the first withdrawal of seeds in its history.
The seeds are stored in four-ply sealed envelopes, then placed into plastic tote containers on metal shelving racks. The storage rooms are kept at −18 °C (−0.4 °F). The low temperature and limited access to oxygen will ensure low metabolic activity and delay seed aging. The permafrost surrounding the facility will help maintain the low temperature of the seeds should the electricity supply fail.
The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) has played a key role in the planning of the seed vault and is coordinating shipments of seed samples to the Vault in conjunction with the Nordic Genetic Resource Center. The Trust will provide most of the annual operating costs for the facility, and has set aside endowment funds to do so, while the Norwegian government will finance upkeep of the structure itself. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other donors, the GCDT is assisting selected genebanks in developing countries as well as the international agricultural research centers in packaging and shipping seeds to the seed vault. An International Advisory Council is being established to provide guidance and advice. It will include representatives from the FAO, the CGIAR, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources and other institutions.
As part of the vault's first anniversary, more than 90,000 food crop seed samples were placed into storage, bringing the total number of seed samples to 400,000. Among the new seeds includes 32 varieties of potatoes from Ireland's national gene banks and 20,000 new samples from the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. Other seed samples came from Canada and Switzerland, as well as international seed researchers from Colombia, Mexico and Syria. This 4-tonne (3.9-long-ton; 4.4-short-ton) shipment brought the total number of seeds stored in the vault to over 20 million. As of this anniversary, the vault contained samples from approximately one-third of the world's most important food crop varieties. Also part of the anniversary, experts on food production and climate change met for a three-day conference in Longyearbyen.
A seed sample consists of around 500 seeds sealed in an airtight aluminum bag, and the facility has a storage capacity of 4.5 million seed samples.