The Svalbard seed vault is like a Noah’s Ark- it is a way of ensuring that crops (and seeds that give rise to them) that sustain us will not be lost should doomsday strike. The seed vault has captured the imagination of the public in recent years. In this article, we will discuss some of the most important facts about the seed vault and why it came into existence in the first place:
Six Fun Facts about the Svalbard Seed Bank
- The Svalbard seed bank is aptly named the Doomsday seed vault.
- On the lighter side, considering its location and security details, it is the perfect backdrop for a James Bond movie; the seeds are preserved deep inside the mountain near the North Pole. The vault is designed to survive any global catastrophe- nuclear war, gene modification or gene pollution. It is the location of an abandoned coal mine that is nearly 135 meters above the fjord below-so it is safe from rising sea waters should global warming cause them to increase.
- The vault was first opened in February 2008. The seed sample count inside the vault currently stands at 770,000 samples. Each sample has 500 seeds, so the total number of seeds in the vault can be estimated to be about 400 million.
- The vault cost nearly 9million USD to create with ongoing maintenance costs of approximately 100,000 USD annually.
- The Syrian Civil war prompted the vault to be opened for the first time in 2015 since its opening in 2008. (This fact is not fun, but it is interesting. More info here.)
- The Svalbard seed vault naturally cannot protect everything: crops like bananas do not have seeds. Also, crops like coconuts etc cannot be preserved by drying and freezing.
Why is seed diversity preservation and plant breeding necessary?
Seed preservation was first considered in 1920s when scientists realized the importance of assembling complete diversity of each crop before their distinct varieties were lost. If seeds are lost, agriculture will fail. Seed diversity helps guarantee successful harvest and also satisfy the human need for variety. Consumers need variety in their recipes (we need tomatoes for salads but a different variety of tomatoes for making sauces. Likewise, we need two different varieties of wheat for making pastas and breads). Farmers too need seed diversity for meeting these consumer demands and also ensuring that different varieties of same seeds withstand different environmental conditions.
Plant breeders are therefore known to create variety upon variety for each seed. Take the example of wheat; a single type of wheat has hundreds of pedigrees that, which typed in small print on paper, could run for 6 meters. If records are to be believed-there are 200,000 types of wheat, 30,000 types of corn, 47,000 types of sorghum and 15,000 varieties of groundnuts!
Why is there a need of a single seed bank, if nations already have national seed banks?
Many nations first started out by having their own seed banks realizing the importance of seed diversity and preservation. A great deal of funding however became a necessity for closely guarding these seed banks, something which most nations fail to have. This is the main reason why, many of the national seed banks languished and the gene diversity in their care deteriorated. Secondly self funded national interests did not get adequate international support, mainly because each national seed bank was acting in the self interest of the individual nation. As a result, plan B in the form of the Svalbard seed vault became a necessity.
There are many heroes in this story-farmers, plant breeders and maintenance personnel who should be thanked for their efforts of creating seed shipments and documenting the seeds.
If you are passionate about seed freedom and diversity, check out our "Seed Freedom" organic cotton t-shirt and you can help educate others!