Back up for our future

"If you can look into the seeds of time, And say which grain will grow and which will not, Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear, Your favours nor your hate."


Different seeds are stored in the state estate chambers of the Global Seed Vault [1]


Permafrost soil should ensure the permanent preservation of the seeds [1]

270 Million

Approximate Value of the Endowment Fund [2]


Varieties recorded in Genesys, the global portal for plant genetic resources [2]

+ USD 32.4 Million

Value of grants Crop Trust provided to conserve crop diversity globally in 2016 [2]


Varieties conserved in the Seed Vault [2]

"If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear,
Your favours nor your hate."

[Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3]

The instructions that Noah received to build the ark were clear and precise: "Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits."

The divine manual for the survival of mankind from the first book of Moses, Genesis, has been reinterpreted for the modern world. Drive a 120-meter-long tunnel into the side of a mountain on Spitzbergen, 130 meters above sea level. Carve out three halls (artificial underground cavities), each of which is 27 meters long, 10 meters wide and 6 meters high, and cool these to minus 18 degrees Celsius. Protect everything from outside with permafrost.
The poured-concrete entrance to the world's largest seed depository - the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – rising, like in a James Bond movie, from the side of a mountain near the town of Longyearbyen on the Norwegian island of Spitzbergen, appears to admonish mankind – always expect the worst! At the same time the crystals above the metal entrance doors seem to say: hope for the best! In the event of some future cataclysm that threatens the global food supply, be it because of war, disease or climate change, this vault located 1,300 kilometers south of the North Pole offers the last hope of salvation - or at least belief in it.
What if temperature changes around the globe mean that common varieties of rice, corn or wheat no longer thrive but shrivel, resulting in the loss of both seed and harvest? Mankind would need some sort of backup to enable it to reproduce and re-engineer lost arable crops as the basis of our food supply. Ultimately, Svalbard is the repository of the knowledge of millennia passed down over countless generations: the seed for arable farming, the foundations of our life, constantly developed and refined by our ancestors. The DNA of the seed enshrines salvation and doom, record harvests and famines. The loss of this knowledge would threaten the very existence of humanity.

A key supporter of the Spitzbergen project: The Global Crop Diversity Trust.

With the Food Forever Initiative, Trust director Marie Haga and her team want to raise awareness of the importance of crop diversity for the development of more resilient agriculture. The relevance of this issue today is highlighted by the example of Syria, which has already experienced the worst-case scenario. The national seedbank in Aleppo proactively sent seed samples to various seed vaults around the globe, including Spitzbergen, for safe storage, far away from the chaos of the war. Aleppo was the depository for treasures: ancient varieties of lentils, beans or wheat. They formed the basis for the supply of seed to farmers in the local arid regions – and they could become even more valuable if temperatures on earth were to rise further and trigger more droughts. Crops that can withstand drought would then become key to survival.
This approach highlights the particular importance of seed vaults around the globe and on Spitzbergen. They constitute the emergency reserve in the event of catastrophe.

Painstakingly catalogued, stored and protected in sealed bags, tubes or boxes.

Tthe Svalbard Global Seed Vault deep inside the mountain stores roughly 900,000 different seeds. Samples from North Korea in rustic wooden boxes are stored on shelves alongside containers of seed sent from the United States. In the permafrost, the emergency seeds coexist in peace and tranquility. It is estimated that this "ark" for the global food supply cost just over 35 million euros. Most of this sum – roughly 30 million euros – came from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Norway and the Rockefeller Foundation donated the remainder. The mission is to store and safeguard as many as possible of the 21 most important crops and their wild relatives. The aim is not to conduct research on or refine the rice, wheat, corn or apple seed. Rather it is to store safely copies that can be used in the event of emergencies -- if, for example, the genus has become extinct. If a country needs the seeds it has stored in the Arctic Circle, they can be withdrawn. Syria has already withdrawn some seeds and therefore used the back-up.
Critics argue that this "backup plan" could result in recklessness. They claim it makes more sense to protect and preserve ecosystems and crop plants in situ – preventing them from becoming extinct in the first place. In protected zones, for example, plants could become better accustomed to changing environmental conditions such as heat and drought or wetness and thereby remain viable for the future, instead of being frozen in the permafrost. There are undoubtedly valid arguments for both systems.
One of the world's largest seed vaults after Svalbard is in Gatersleben, Saxony-Anhalt.
The Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (Leibniz-Institut für Pflanzengenetik und Kulturpflanzenforschung or IPK) stores a total of 151,002 accessions from 2,933 species and 776 genera. The IPK's mission is to prevent the extinction of plant species. To this end, Gatersleben is also home to intense research and development activity – unlike on Spitzbergen where seed is only stored as a backup copy. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is, therefore, really a backup for the backup.

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