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Svalbard Global Seed Vault: the most important bank in the world

In addition to being the closest inhabited place to the North Pole, the Svalbard Islands are guardians of a vault that is considered to be the most important bank in the world.

When we talk about banks, the first that comes to our minds are entities that control and manage money. But his bank is far from that. It does has safe vaults and is highly protected, but it does not manage coins and bills, but rather seeds. It is located in Svalbard, far from civilizations and near the North Pole, and could represent our salvation in the future.

Svalbard is an archipelago located in the Arctic Ocean and consists of several islands belonging to Norway. Maybe it was the Vikings or the Russians who discovered this place, but since the 20′s of the last century, they have belonged to Norway.

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The literal translation means ‘cold coast’ and it is the kingdom of the polar bear and home to other species such as the beluga whale and walrus. There are no roads linking the different colonies of the island and the means of transportation are boat, plane, helicopter and snowmobile.

In addition to all the polar bears, there are almost 3,000 people that inhabit this region and they all live in Longyearbyen, the administrative center of this archipelago. Unfortunately, Svalbard is one of the places in the world where the consequences of global warming are most visible and dramatic.

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But Svalbard is important because also safeguards the so-called ‘Vault of the End of the World’.


The Global Seed Vault

In Svalbard there is a cellar 130 meters deep that is proof against earthquakes, nuclear explosions and other issues that could be considered global catastrophes. The seeds of virtually all crop species in the world that serve as food are stored here in order to safeguard diversity in the event of a global catastrophe.

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Why do we need a seed vault?

It secures millions of seeds representing all major crop varieties available in the world today and offers options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It basically functions as the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply.

How does it works?

A temperature of -18 °C is required for optimum storage of these seeds. Svalbard seems the perfect place for this, as worldwide there are more than 1,700 genebanks storing collections of food crops, however, many of them are vulnerable and exposed to wars and unavoidable disasters, such as lack of funding or mismanagement. Keep in mind that a malfunctioning freezer can ruin an entire collection. The loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of any form of life.

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This is where Svalbard comes in, as the permafrost and rock thickness ensure that seed samples remain frozen even without power. Making the building an ecofriendly one too.

Seeds are sealed in custom-made three-layer foil packets, inside boxes and stored on shelves inside the Seed Vault. The low temperature and humidity levels inside ensure low metabolic activity keeping the seeds viable for long periods of time.

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The Storage

The vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million crop varieties. Each seed packet consists of an average of 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds can be stored. Currently the vault stores more than 1.1 million seed varieties from almost every country in the world.

They range from unique varieties of major African and Asian foods such as wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley and potato.

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The Main Objective

The main objective is to safeguard as much of the world’s unique crop genetic material as possible while avoiding unnecessary duplication.

History

In 2004 a research group at the Norwegian Agricultural University conducted a feasibility study and concluded that Svalbard was a suitable site for long-term seed storage.

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In 2008 the Seed Vault was inaugurated as a partnership between the Ministry of Agriculture and Food of the Government of Norway, the Nordic Center for Genetic Resources (NordGen) and the Crop Trust. Time magazine named the Seed Vault the sixth-best invention that year.

As of 2013, approximately one-third of the crop diversity stored in genebanks globally was represented in the Seed Vault.

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In 2015, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) was unable to maintain its Syrian genebank, as a consequence of the Syrian civil war, so the first-ever withdrawal of seed from the Seed Vault was made to regenerate and store those seeds in active collections in Lebanon and Morocco.

In 2019, improvements were made to the entrance of the Seed Vault to prevent water from entering. These included the waterproofing of the tunnel walls, removal of heat sources from the tunnel and excavation of exterior drainage ditches.

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In 2020, world leaders gathered at the Seed Vault for a Seed Summit to discuss ‘Genetic diversity for more resilient food systems’. This year, the number of seed varieties in storage exceeded one million.

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