The Svalbard Global Seed Vault holdsthe most diverse collection of foodcrop seeds in the world, with over 60,000 samples from India. Jayaraj Manepalli pays a visit.
In the Arctic winter, the only natural source of light is the moon for half a year. The moonlight is brighter owing to snow albedo casting its magical spell on the endless expanse of ice and snow, in this remarkable place close to the North Pole. Beneath a snow mountain is a concrete entrance to a different type of cave with colourful muted greenish-turquoise and white lights seeming to attract at least someone in this remote part of the earth. The lights, an award-winning design by Artist Dyveke Sanne and KORO (the Norwegian agency that oversees art in public spaces), are a network of 200 fibre optic cables, mirrors, prisms and steel reflecting different patterns for winter and summer.
Beyond the beautiful entrance lies the 100m tunnel leading to the Vault — a state-of-the-art seed protection facility, famously called the ‘Doomsday’ or the ‘Apocalypse’ Seed Bank or ‘Noah’s Ark for seeds’. Welcome to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on Spitsbergen Island in the remote archipelago of Svalbard between the North Pole and mainland Norway.
From over 1,400 gene banks in the world holding seeds, what makes Svalbard Vault unique is its location — remote from the mainland yet accessible — in a geologically stable area amid thick sandstone rock. The other factors: a peaceful political environment, non-militarised zone, protected from flooding and the rising sea levels, presence of low humidity levels and the perma-frost conditions that preserve the seed deposits even in the event of a power failure. The Vault is a three-party agreement between the Government of Norway, which formally owns the Vault; The Nordic Genetic Research Centre (NordGen) responsible for the Vault’s operation and management; and The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), which provides scientific guidance and assistance in arranging shipments to the Vault, especially to developing countries. GCDT also finances a large part of the day-to-day operation and management of the Vault.
The loss of crop diversity and the vulnerability of existing seed collections in various seed/gene banks gave birth to the idea in of establishing a back-up seed facility in Svalbard. NordGen converted an abandoned coalmine in Svalbard to store a few seed samples in permafrost conditions in the early 1980s. The positive experience led to the idea of establishing a ‘global vault’ on a bigger scale.
However, the early 1990s witnessed a heated debate on patents and access to genetic resources between member states of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Developing countries insisted on receiving a part of the proceeds from the commercial seed industry since the diversity mainly came from their areas, while the commercial seed industry wanted free access to such resources and the provision to patent the seeds. This led to a standoff between developing and developed states. The breakthrough came in 2004 after the FAO’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, an international legal framework for conserving and accessing crop diversity, was agreed upon and the ‘global’ Vault became a practical possibility.
The Vault contains three rooms and has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples. Considering that each sample equals 500 seeds, 2.25 billion seeds could be stored — an enormous capacity, equalling all the seed samples preserved today in over 1,400 gene banks in 100 countries. “As of today, a total of 8,24,625 samples are stored in the Vault representing 4,740 species, and we cooperate with 60 institutions that have deposited back ups of their collection in Svalbard,” said Grethe Helene Evjen, coordinator of the Vault project and senior adviser from the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food.
The Seed Vault functions like a safety deposit box in a bank. Seeds are stored under ‘black box’ arrangements; i.e. seed packages and boxes will not be opened or sent to anyone, except to the original depositor. The depositing gene banks own the seeds they send to the Vault with no transfer of ownership.
No one can access anyone else’s seeds. The Vault does not make material available to breeders the way a conventional gene bank would. The Vault holds samples originating from almost every country in the world — from 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. In fact, the Vault already holds the most diverse collection of food crop seeds in the world.
“Today, we estimate that there are more than 1/3 of the biodiversity of crop species now secured in the Vault, and of the major crops, roughly half is backed up,” said Professor Roland von Bothmer, from NordGen, and a senior advisor to the Vault project. .“Our aim is to assist gene banks to retrieve their seed samples in case of their samples getting lost due to various reasons like power failure, fire, floods, civil strife or war,” said Grete, quoting the recent example of the Syrian conflict that affected the seed bank in Acarda in Aleppo, which was in danger of losing its deposits. Thankfully, most of the deposits were moved to Svalbard just before the conflict began.
“Although earlier deposits originating from India exist at the Vault, they were done on behalf of ICRISAT, an inter-governmental organisation. The first official deposits from India took place in April 2014 with the deposit of a package of pigeon pea,” said Ola T. Westengen, from NordGen, and Coordinator of Operation and Management at the Vault. He was present when Indian delegation’s Dr. K.C. Bansal, Director, National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) deposited the seeds. A total of 66,529 seed samples in the Vault today, have their origin in India. Marie Haga, GCDT’s Executive Director, said that she “was happy to see India’s participation in this worldwide conservation effort.
More so because the first contribution to this global collection is pigeon pea: considered one of the 25 most important crops for global food security,” she said. For the next shipment, NBPGR is preparing around 1,000 wheat varieties. “These could be ready within three months for shipment to Svalbard, after sufficient drying in India,” Dr. Bansal added. Meanwhile, the seeds deposited in the ‘Arctic Noah’s Ark’ are ensured safe preservation, long life and their viability to grow after many years, decades and even centuries — to address the present and future challenges of global food security.