Svalbard Global Seed Vault deposit ceremony. 25 February 2020. Cierra Martin, Crop Trust, Flickr
Seeds are travelers by nature. Riding on trade winds and ocean currents, in the guts of animals and on the leg hairs of humans, they’ve traversed our planet and put down roots almost everywhere.
That’s right: almost. At the Earth’s coldest corners, the North and South Poles, most seeds don’t have much luck with germination. But these frigid environments can actually play an important role in safeguarding seeds for the future – a function on which humanity may soon depend for our survival.
Right now, seed samples from key crops around the world are being sent to the Arctic circle for safekeeping. Their destination? The Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
Svalbard, a Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle, is the farthest north you can fly on a scheduled flight. There, deep under layers of permafrost and thick rock that keep temperatures at an optimal -18 degrees Celsius even without power, lie duplicates of 1,214,827 seed samples from almost every country in the world.
In carefully-labeled opaque plastic jars lined up in that icy underground ‘library’ sit durum wheat seeds collected from the steppes of Kazakhstan, eggplant seeds from Ghanaian smallholders, and frost-hardy tomato seeds from Germany’s Bonn Botanic Gardens. And there’s room for millions more.
They’re there to back up the planet’s other genebank collections, and in so doing, secure the foundation of our future food supply.
But why do we need all these backups? Well, the crop plants that currently produce most of our food are not found in nature but have been bred over the past 14,000 years by farmers, breeders, and scientists to develop the characteristics that make them tasty, nutritious and able to survive in local conditions.
In the process, a huge number of genotypes (sets of genes) have been created and are now being collected in over 1,700 seedbanks around the world.
“This diversity is the raw material that plants and agriculture need to adapt to future demands, to population increases – and to climate change,” said Åsmund Asdal, who coordinates the Vault’s operations and management, on GLF Live earlier this year.
And before anything is shipped off to the vault, one of the first steps to ‘seed security’ is ensuring these seed banks have the resources to run properly, said Nora Castañeda-Álvarez, who leads the Crop Trust’s Seeds for Resilience project supporting five national seedbanks in Africa, in another GLF Live in October.
After all, something as simple as a malfunctioning freezer could ruin an entire collection – and that could well be irreplaceable.
“You need to work to ensure you are keeping the seeds alive and in enough quantities that you can distribute them to the farmers, scientists, or students that need them,” said Castañeda-Álvarez.
“This is one of the main challenges that our partners have been facing. And, thanks to Seeds for Resilience, we have been able to support them to refresh the seeds, and they were also able to implement protocols to measure seed viability in a more systematic way.”
Building on this, Seeds for Resilience has also supported the banks in sending shipments of carefully-selected seeds to Svalbard.
The selections usually included culturally and commercially important crops and the wild relatives of key crops, which can offer useful genes for adapting crops to new conditions encountered under climate change.
But why not just keep the seeds stored in-country? “You have to ensure that you have some security for all your collections,” said Castañeda-Álvarez. “It’s not sufficient to just have them on your side.”
“We’ve seen many examples around the world where seed banks are exposed to things like typhoons and social unrest, and if you don’t have a copy of those collections in the Vault, you risk losing them. So, shipping samples to Svalbard is a kind of insurance against that.”
That doesn’t mean those seeds are then owned by the Vault: they remain the property of the seed banks and are not shared with anyone else or distributed anywhere – “and if the seed bank wants them back, we send them back,” said Asdal.
That happened recently, when the International Center for the Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) lost access to its main seed bank, located at its previous headquarters in Aleppo, Syria, due to the conflict there.
“They decided to withdraw the seeds that they – luckily – had deposited in the seed vault,” said Asdal. “So, we sent back 116,000 seed samples to ICARDA units in Lebanon and Morocco, and ICARDA used these seed samples to establish new seed bank units in these two countries.”
The seeds themselves are not the only elements of food production that need preserving, however.
While the value of having these seeds stashed away is increasingly apparent, their worth will be reduced if no-one remembers how to grow them, said Daniel Ashie Kotey, the acting director for CSIR-PGRRI in Ghana, during the interview with Castañeda-Álvarez.
“We have to use the Indigenous knowledge associated with our foods,” he said. “We have to keep the consciousness awake.”
Kotey highlighted the fact that of the 5,538 plant species recorded as having been cultivated as crops in human history, just 12 crops and five animal species make up about 75 percent of the world’s food today. Rice, maize and wheat alone provide more than half of the world’s calories.
“Most of the crops that are indigenous to Africa are at the periphery of research and funding,” he said. “But by narrowing down the scope of the foods that we depend on, we are making ourselves increasingly vulnerable.”
“We need to diversify our farming systems and our food systems to make sure that we are able to sustain food and nutrition equity in the long term.”
Text by Monica Evans
Produced by Eden Flaherty