To save the world’s population in the aftermath of a global crisis, and to allow life on Earth to continue in the face of a major disaster, a remote location in the world houses one of the most treasured of all vaults on this planet. This, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which stores spare or duplicate copies of plant seeds obtained from worldwide gene banks in its frozen interior, would be more valuable than vast reserves of platinum, gold, and diamonds in the wake of a global agricultural crisis. These seeds are highly protected so that, when needed, they can be revived again. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located around 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago near Longyearbyen. The vault was established by Cary Fowler, an American agriculturist and former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, in association with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). The founding stone of the vault was established on June 19th, 2006 by a collective group comprised of the respective Prime Ministers of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark. The vault was finally opened in 2008 in a partnership between the Crop Trust, NordGen, and the Norwegian Government.
Funding and Support
The construction cost of $9 USD million needed for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was entirely funded by the Norwegian government. Currently, Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust is responsible for maintaining the operational costs of the vault, while governments from across the world and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide the primary sources of funding for the vault.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is like the ultimate back up for the world’s citizens in times of a major global crisis. Although there are 1,700 gene banks scattered across the world in various countries, the seeds of crop plants stored in these gene banks are quite susceptible to war, natural catastrophes, poor financial management, and/or political instability. The vulnerable nature of these gene banks necessitated the need for a much more secure mode of storage that would act as a global deposit of seeds to benefit the entire world population in the face of a disaster. The hyper-secure seed gene bank in Svalbard provides just that.
Sample Collection Size
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault has a storage capacity of 4.5 million varieties of crops. Taking into account that each variety of crop will be represented by 500 seeds, the vault has a total storage capacity of 2.5 billion seeds. Currently, over 860,000 samples of crops representing African and Asian staples like wheat, rice, maize, and sorghum, and American and European favorites like potato, barley, and lettuce, are all stored in the vault. A high rate of caution is maintained in storing the seeds in the vault. They are completely dried and then sealed in specially designed four-ply packets before storing them in the vault. The maintenance of optimum temperatures (-18º Celsius) is extremely important to ensure the survival of these seeds for long periods of time. By 2013, one-third of the genera diversity of seeds that are stored in all of the gene banks of the world were already represented in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, and its collection is still expanding.
Operations and Management
Currently, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is managed under the tripartite agreement between the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen), the Norwegian government, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT). The refrigeration units in the vault are maintained by power generated from locally mined coal. Even if the equipment fails to work due to some unprecedented reason, the temperature is still cold enough to allow the seeds to survive for several weeks before thawing completely when temperatures rise to the surrounding bedrock’s temperature. The countries depositing their seeds in the global seed vault maintain their ownership rights on the seeds, which will not be distributed to any other party without seeking permission from the depositor.