Far up in the Arctic, a seed bank chiseled into a mountain received 60,000 seeds of different crop varieties on Tuesday as part of its mission to safeguard the world’s food supply.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, received the seeds from 35 institutions during the landmark deposit. The seed bank now holds more than 1 million seeds, representing more than 5,000 crop species from 85 different depositors.
The seeds represent widely grown vegetables and herbs, as well as obscure plants and wild varieties, according to the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The Cherokee Nation in the United States deposited squash and beans, the United Kingdom delivered wild oats and barley, and 68 types of rice came from Thailand. The World Vegetable Center handed over seeds for quirky-sounding crops like snake gourd and butterfly pea.
The deposit event was hosted by Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway and Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo, president of Ghana, both of whom are co-chairs of the United Nations group of sustainable development goals (SDG) advocates.
“This deposit event is especially timely, given that 2020 is the deadline for meeting target 2.5 of SDG 2 on zero hunger, which calls on the international community to safeguard the genetic diversity of crops and livestock,” Solberg said in a statement.
The deposit was the largest to date in terms of the number of institutions involved and is the first since a major update to the facility in 2019, following structural damage when permafrost in the region unexpectedly melted and flooded its entrance.
“The seed vault is a backup,” Cierra Martin, communications officer at the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization that supports seed banks, told Global Citizen. “It acts as a safety deposit box, only depositors can take seeds out.”
Organizations that collect seeds around the world can store them in Svalbard for safekeeping.
“It’s a really iconic piece of our work,” Martin said. “But it’s just the tip of the iceberg of a global conservation effort that happens 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the 1,700 seed banks that tend to biodiversity.”
The Svalbard Seed Bank is a library of global agricultural achievement.
Modern agriculture is the result of 10,000 years of trial and error, cross breeding and trade, research and luck.
For all of the staple crops that are shared across borders and valued in the global marketplace, agriculture is still marked by regional peculiarity. The soil quality, weather conditions, and climate of any given location, combined with the cultural preferences of local communities, means that agriculture takes many different forms.
Seed banks are meant to keep a record of this diversity, safeguard the global food supply, and promote further innovation and collaboration.
And the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is at the forefront of this global effort.
Launched in 2008, the seed bank is located deep in a remote region of the Arctic to prevent outside forces, whether natural or man-made, from harming the seeds.
“Worldwide, there are a lot of different threats to agriculture, from defending against natural disasters to climate change to civil war,” Martin said. “If something happens to your core collection, then you can lose valuable material for good.”
Martin said that a seed bank in Aleppo containing more than 155,000 seed varieties was nearly lost during the Syrian civil war, but its contents were successfully transferred to Svalbard in 2008, allowing the facility to rebound.
She said that the seed bank can help organizations have peace of mind that crop varieties will remain safe even during catastrophic events.
Climate change, in particular, threatens to diminish global agriculture, making it harder to grow certain crops and harder for certain regions to foster food production.
There’s also the more gradual threat of food standardization — of multinational farmers choosing to invest in highly profitable, easy-to-grow crops rather than opting for variety. In the US, for example, farms have lost 93% of their crop diversity over the course of 80 years.
These trends are spurring greater awareness of the importance of seed banks, Martin said.
“The conversation around food is definitely increasing, people are starting to question how their food is produced, whether its sustainable,” she said. “People are talking about farm to fork; we want them to think about seed bank to fork.”