MENU

Seeds Frozen for the Future

To protect the world’s crops for generations to come, countries submit their seeds to this unique seed preservation vault in Norway.

By Marilyn Cummins

Deep in the permafrost of a mountain on a remote Norwegian island just 650 miles from the North Pole, rows and rows of black boxes safeguard a unique, living collection. They are in essence safe deposit boxes full of seeds from more than 930,000 crop varieties from around the world, held at an optimal zero degrees (-18C).

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, owned by the Norwegian government and partly managed and funded by the independent Global Crop Diversity Trust, is built to hold up to 4.5 million varieties, which at 500 seeds per sample equals 2.25 billion seeds at full capacity. Countries retain ownership of the seeds they deposit.

Why keep the seeds in such a cold, remote location? The aim is to safeguard as much of the world’s unique crop genetic material as possible for hundreds of years and possibly beyond, protected from war, theft and natural disasters that threaten and have wiped out some of the other 1,700 gene banks around the world. For instance, by saving nearly 120,000 duplicate seed samples in the Svalbard vault, a gene bank in war-torn Aleppo, Syria, was able to start over at new stations in Morocco and Lebanon with seeds it retrieved from the vault in 2015 and 2017.

Cary Fowler, former executive director of the Crop Trust, stands inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and inspects the crops inside.

Cary Fowler, former executive director of the Crop Trust, stands inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and inspects the crops inside.

Turns out you can’t hide from Mother Nature, though, even in the heart of a frozen mountain. Toward the end of the hottest year on record globally, high Arctic temperatures and excessive rain in October 2016 melted permafrost around the 9-year-old vault. Water seeped through the outer doors and into the 142-yard-long entrance tunnel, refreezing long before it could get to the stored seeds. Improvements are underway to waterproof the tunnel walls, divert potential future melt-water from the tunnel and even explore an alternative entrance to improve safety in the long term.

The person most identified with the founding of the Global Seed Vault, former executive director of the Crop Trust, Cary Fowler, has focused considerable time, effort and money saving seeds globally in many capacities. He and his wife—seed-saving advocate, gardener and author Amy Goldman—practice what they preach, raising heirloom apples and vegetables on their 200-acre farm in New York’s Hudson Valley. His new book, Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault, came out last year.

For more information about the ­­­­­­­­­­Svalbard Global Seed Vault and the story of how it came to be, see:

https://www.croptrust.org/our-work/svalbard-global-seed-vault/

Seeds on Ice: Svalbard and the Global Seed Vault by Cary Fowler 

“Seeds of Time” documentary