Four-Year-Old Seed Vault Protects Hundreds of Thousands of Crop Varieties

By Eleanor Fausold

Buried deep in a mountainside located in a group of islands nearly 1,000 kilometers off the northern Norwegian coast lies a vault charged with the task of safeguarding nearly three-quarters of a million seed samples from around the globe. It might sound like something out of a movie, but this seed preservation bunker is very much a real-life agricultural security project.

The International Center for Tropical Agriculture has submitted seed varieties for conservation at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. (Photo credit: Neil Palmer, ICTA)

Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located near the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a far-northern location that exists in total darkness for nearly four months out of the year. The vault serves as backup to living crop diversity collections housed in “genebanks” around the world and is designed to protect seed varieties from both natural and manmade disasters.  Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, explains that the seeds that the vault receives are crucial to preservation of global crop diversity: “Our crop diversity is constantly under threat, from dramatic dangers such as fires, political unrest, war and tornadoes, as well as the mundane, such as failing refrigeration systems and budget cuts. But these seeds are the future of our food supply, as they carry genetic treasures such as heat resistance, drought tolerance, or disease and pest resistance.”

The vault currently secures over 740,000 samples, which are kept frozen by layers of permafrost and thick rock that insulate the vault and keep its inner temperature far below freezing, even in the absence of electricity. Its initial construction was funded entirely by the Norwegian government, but it is now maintained through a partnership between the Norwegian government, Nordic Genetic Resources Center, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

In late February and early March, a total of 24,948 seed samples arrived at the vault, just in time for celebration of its fourth birthday. Three particularly interesting and celebrated arrivals included wheat from a remote region of Tajikistan, amaranth that was once cultivated by the Aztecs, and barley that is now being used to brew beer in the American Pacific Northwest.

The wheat originated in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, one of the highest mountain ranges on the planet. The region, fraught with hot summers and frigid, snowy winters, harbors an impressive variety of wheat, much of which is especially interesting to scientists as they search for a variety that is resistant to a powerful strain of wheat stem rust that has been known to devastate crop yields.

The amaranth, sent by the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), was first cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas 8,000 years ago, and its seeds were once eaten as a nutritious grain by these ancient cultures. Amaranth has recently been “rediscovered” as a high-protein, gluten-free alternative to wheat and has once again risen to popularity as a result. Some of the varieties sent to Svalbard were also once used for healing and medicinal purposes, and today the red pigment in amaranth stems gives a rich red color to colada morada, a traditional South American beverage drunk in Ecuador during its annual Day of the Dead observance.

Another contribution by the NPGS included several subspecies of barley that were first imported to the United States in 1938. These grains are modern varieties of “Betzes” barley, an old German variety that was grown in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and is now the ancestor of 18 modern varieties growing in the region, including the malting barley known as “Klages,” a favorite in America’s expanding craft beer movement.

Although the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is sometimes referred to as the “Doomsday Seed Vault” because of its role in protecting global agriculture systems from natural or manmade disasters, the part it plays in protecting global seed diversity is important even today. Seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan have already been destroyed in the conflict there, and another was looted during the uprising in Egypt last year.

It is important to examine and preserve as many varieties of seeds as possible because even those that may not seem important now could turn out to be a critical link to survival in years to come. Some varieties that were first collected in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, have recently been found to have very high flood or drought tolerance, rendering them incredibly valuable as climate change increases the frequency and severity of each of these extremes.

Do you know of other large-scale projects working to protect and preserve agricultural diversity? Comment below!

Eleanor Fausold is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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