BY: JESSICA BEUKER
Way up North, 1,300 km beyond the Arctic Circle, the farthest North that is possible for any human to fly, lays the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Located on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, and tucked away in the permafrost, 500 feet inside a mountain, it is the world’s largest secure seed storage facility.
Opened by the Norwegian government in 2008, the Vault safely houses seeds from all across the globe. Tens of thousands of different varieties are held in the vault, including staples such as beans, wheat and rice. So far, there are more than 4,000 different plant species. The seed bank is fully funded by the government, while The Ministry of Agriculture and Food is responsible for operations.
The Seed Vault was built to last, and to withstand any natural or manmade disasters. While it’s not the only genebank – according to Crop Trust there are more than 1,700 worldwide that hold collections of food crops – it is the only one that is built to handle almost anything. Most of the world’s genebanks are exposed to natural disasters and war, as well as poor management funding. If an entire collection is ruined somehow, the damage is irreversible, and that crop variety could become extinct.
The purpose of the Vault is to store backups of seed samples from the world’s crop collections. It will secure millions of seeds for centuries that will represent the earth’s vast crop variety and offer those options to future generations – regardless of climate change and population growth.
The area surrounding the Vault is geologically stable and humidity levels are low. Permafrost and thick rock ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen, even without power, according to Crop Trust. A temperature of -18C is required for best storage. The vault is also well-above sea level, so that even if all the ice in the world melted, the seeds would remain safe.
According to Fast Company, the seeds are stored in custom three-ply foil packages, which are sealed in boxes, and stored on shelves. Each country still owns access to the seeds they deposit, and only the depositor can open the boxes and withdraw seeds. In 2015, Syrian researchers made the very first withdrawal, taking out seeds they had originally deposited into a local seed bank, but that was destroyed during war.
The Vault cost nine million dollars to build, and costs millions more to run it. It’s a steep price, but it could be the thing that saves the world’s food supply one day.
The Vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million varieties of crops, with each variety containing 500 seeds. The Vault currently holds more than 860,000 samples.