LONGYEARBYEN, NORWAY — An inaugural deposit of 100 million seeds originating in more than 100 countries was made Feb. 26 with the opening of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Built into a remote island in the Arctic Circle, the vault is intended to house the most comprehensive and diverse collection of food crop seeds held anywhere in the world.
Located near Longyearbyen, a village of 1,100 on the island of Spitsbergen hundreds of miles north of eastern Norway, the vault was built by Norway and will be maintained through support from the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
Seeds placed in the vault as part of the initial deposit were for wheat, corn and rice as well as cowpea, sorghum, eggplant, lettuce, barley and potato. The inaugural collection contains 268,000 distinct samples of seeds, each originating from a different farm or field from around the world. Samples contain hundreds of seeds or more, and the first shipments secured in the vault weigh about 10 tonnes, filling 676 boxes.
"The opening of the seed vault is part of an unprecedented effort to protect the planet’s rapidly diminishing biodiversity," according to a statement issued by Svalbard Global Seed Vault (S.G.S.V.). "The diversity of our crops is essential for food production, yet it is being lost. This ‘fail-safe’ facility, dug deep into the frozen rock of an Arctic mountain will secure for centuries or long hundreds of millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today.
"As well as protecting against the daily loss of diversity, the vault could also prove indispensable for restarting agricultural production at the regional or global level in the wake of a natural or man-made disaster. Contingencies for climate change have been worked into the plan. Even in the worst-case scenarios of global warming, the vault rooms will remain naturally frozen for up to 200 years."
The vault will be managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), based in Alnarp, in southern Sweden. NordGen conserves and documents the genetic variation of Nordic plant life and maintains a database to help breeders and other researchers.
The vault contains three secure rooms at the end of a 410-foot tunnel blasted out of a mountain on Spitsbergen. The seeds will be stored at -0.4 degrees Fahrenheit and sealed in specially-deigned four-ply foil packages. The packages are sealed inside boxes and stored on shelves inside the vault. Each vault is surrounded by Arctic permafrost, preserving the viability of the seeds in the event of a failure in the electrical supply. The cold temperature will ensure low metabolic activity, keeping the seeds viable.
S.G.A.V. said that seed, when frozen at sub-zero temperatures and properly maintained, are be viable for a millennium or longer. For example, barley can last 2,000 years; wheat, 1,700 years; and sorghum, almost 20,000 years, the group said.
Jacques Diouf, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, described the project as "one of the most innovative and impressive acts in the service of humanity."
The Global Crop Diversity Trust’s mission is ensuring the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide. MBN
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was dedicated Feb. 26. It was built on a remote island to gather and protect seeds as a way to combat the loss of plant diversity in the world. It also is intended as a resource to help restart agricultural production in case of a natural or man-made catastrophe that interrupts global or regional agricultural production.