“At first glance, seeds may not look like much, but in them lies the foundation of our future food and nutrition security, and the possibility of a world without hunger.
Pprotect the global food supply
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault – commonly referred to as the “Doomsday Vault” – is buried under permafrost, 150 meters up a mountainside within the Arctic Circle. It is located on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard; chosen for its remoteness, the gene bank acts as a safeguard collection for the diversity of world cultures.
The Doomsday Vault provides protection against natural and man-made disasters that can threaten other seed banks and impact food security, such as disease, climate change, biodiversity loss and the war. Additionally, alternative genebanks located around the world are threatened by erratic power supplies, lack of funding and poor management. In contrast, the Svalbard Vault is located above sea level, with permafrost and dense rocks keeping seeds frozen at -18ºC, without the need for electricity.
The vault contains the largest collection of agricultural biodiversity in the world, with more than 1.1 million seed samples, representing 5,500 plant species. It contains a wealth of diversity, containing over 10,000 years of agricultural history, with seeds sourced from almost every country in the world.
Industrial agriculture: monoculture and loss of biodiversity
Over the past half-century, industrial agriculture has radically changed farming practices, with new technologies aiding large-scale agricultural production. Another change is ta commodification of seeds by private companies that have standardized and created homogeneous crop varieties. These plants have been bred to be resistant to pesticides and herbicides, such as the controversial chemical glyphosate, a potential carcinogen (carcinogen). In addition to public health concerns, the oversaturation of chemicals has decimated populations of beneficial insects, such as pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Companies are producing hybrid varieties that produce only one generation of crops, meaning farmers can no longer save seeds each season and instead have to buy new seeds each year. This promotes uniform crops and monoculture, which has the ability to produce higher yields; however, it has led to biodiversity loss and land degradation. Now the cultures have grown to become more susceptible to drought, pests and diseases.
Declining diversity has led the world’s food supply to become overly dependent on four major food crops: corn, rice, soybeans and wheat. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), these crops stock up around 60% calories consumed daily by the world’s population. In the United States only, more than 90% of fruit and vegetable varieties have disappeared since the 1900s. This is made worse by just four companies holding 60% of the world seed market.
Crop Diversity Matters – The Importance of Seed Saving
Svalbard aims to conserve crop diversity by protecting the global food supply and plays an active role in achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG) which is “Zero Hunger, Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture “.
Crop diversity ensures food security and protects nutritious food sources, which in turn contributes to poverty reduction. Diversity also promotes sustainable agriculture, mitigates environmental degradation and ensures crops are resilient and adaptable to climate change and disease. Genebanks provide genetic diversity to develop new locally adapted crop varieties capable of withstanding heat, drought, flooding and disease. The development of improved crops also improves nutrition and produces a more varied food supply. This ensures that people in developing countries have equitable access to more affordable and healthier food, thereby reducing hunger and malnutrition.
Challenges: the climate crisis and the Arctic Circle
The vault was designed to protect the world’s food supply from a climate crisis; she now faces that same threat. In 2020, an Arctic heat wave produced record highs in Svalbard, where the temperature exceeded 21.7℃. This is well above the summer average of 5-7℃. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe – rising temperatures, melting sea ice and melting permafrost jeopardize the future of the vault.
To prevent flooding from melting permafrost and extreme weather events, the vault underwent multi-million dollar upgrades. Unfortunately, most genebanks around the world lack the resources and funding to adequately store and protect their seeds. The Crop Trust helps raise funds to support genebanks to ensure global biodiversity.
Challenges: Syrian civil war and moving seeds to Svalbard
In the world there are more than 1,700 gene banks containing crop varieties, but many are highly vulnerable, such as the Aleppo gene bank in Syria, which was threatened by war and forced to close in 2012. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo, contained one of the most important seed collections and the largest collection of crop diversity in the Fertile Crescent, the “birthplace” of primitive agriculture. After the establishment is closed, more than 80% of his collection has been saved in Svalbard.
Countries and organizations have the opportunity to deposit seeds for storage several times a year when the Svalbard Vault is open. Since the vault was created in 2008, only three withdrawals have taken place. For example, in 2015, in response to the Syrian conflict, a new ICARDA seed bank was re-established in Lebanon and Morocco using seeds from the Svalbard vault. ICARDA has since cultivated and collected the seeds from the offspring and returned the seeds to the vault.
Power relations – Who owns the safe?
Politics and international cooperation
The Svalbard vault is a global effort that requires international cooperation and political neutrality. The Norwegian government (Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food) owns and funded the construction of the vault and continues to operate in partnership with the Crop Trust. Any country or organization, including other seed banks, indigenous groups and local communities, can deposit seeds, regardless of policy, there are no restrictions. Despite geopolitical tensions and conflicts, the seeds of North Korea are stored alongside the seeds of the United States. Similarly, boxes of seeds from Ukraine and Russia are also stored together. The depositor retains ownership rights to the seeds, and he is free to withdraw and access his seeds in accordance with international laws and treaties.
Aboriginal groups: Cherokee Nation
In 2020, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma became the first Native American tribe to deposit traditional heirloom seeds, which predate European settlement. Seeds deposited included white eagle corn, roasting squash and Cherokee Trail of Tears beans. The Cherokee Nation is the second indigenous group to save seeds in the vault, following the Andean potato seeds that were deposited in 2015. This is important for preserving traditional knowledge, while securing important seeds on the cultural plan for future generations.
Solutions: food sovereignty and traditional culture
Genebanks like Svalbard play an important role in conserving crop diversity. However, conservation should not become too dependent on genebanks – they should be treated as complementary. A long-term solution must prioritize the protection and enhancement of natural habitats and agro-ecosystems to ensure the sustainability of plants and crops.
To enable food sovereignty, there should be more room for peasant, indigenous and farmer-led solutions, all of which consider local contexts and needs. Community-run seed banks, “on-farm” conservation and farmer-led programs aim to help farmers grow local varieties. Farmers have the right to seed sovereignty which includes the right to save, grow, exchange and sell their own seeds.
Local communities defend food and land sovereignty by protecting and restoring diverse varieties of traditional crops. There is a growing movement across North America among BIPOC communities to save heirloom seeds, in hopes of preserving historic knowledge and culture through traditional crops. Traditional cultivation and organic farming should be practiced as an alternative to industrial agriculture. Indigenous peoples offer various farming methods, such as terracing, which is more sustainable, reduces water and fertilizer consumption, and helps improve soil health and prevent erosion.
Transforming the food system requires moving from the current industrial model to one that improves ecological processes, prioritizes human health and nutrition, maintains social justice, and strengthens rural communities.