The vault is a steely compound tunneled 150 meters into an icy mountain in the Norwegian Arctic, just 600 miles from the North Pole. It is designed to last a thousand years, and to withstand a wide range of global disasters, including climate change, nuclear war, and even an asteroid strike. The Norwegian government entirely funded the vault’s approximately NOK 60 million (US$10 million) construction.
The vault opened in 2008, and more than 1,400 gene banks were invited to send duplicate seeds to protect their genes in case of disaster. Ensuring that the genetic diversity of the world’s food crops is preserved for future generations is an important contribution toward the reduction of hunger and poverty in developing countries. This is where the greatest plant diversity originates and where the need for food security and the further development of agriculture is most urgent. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is established in the permafrost in the mountains of Svalbard, is designed to store duplicates of seeds from seed collections around the globe.
It was the recognition of the vulnerability of the world’s gene banks that sparked the idea of establishing a global seed vault to serve as a backup storage facility. The purpose of the Vault is to store duplicates (backups) of seed samples from the world’s crop collections. Permafrost and thick rock ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without power. The Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, offering options for future generations to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth. It will secure, for centuries, millions of seeds representing every important crop variety available in the world today. It is the final back up.
Entrance A: To maintain security, motion sensors and a webcam monitor the door. The control tower at the local airport has a direct view of the site, which is kept well lit during the dark winter months.
Tunnel B: A tunnel extends 400 feet into the mountain. It leads past an office and utility room before ending at two airlocked chambers. A steel sheath reinforces a portion where the rock is especially prone to fragmentation.
Storage C: A third of a mile of shelving fills each vault. Above, vents cool the air to 0 degrees Fahrenheit, which will keep some of the seeds viable for centuries. Fresh seeds will be added periodically.
Boxes D: Seed envelopes are housed in corrugated plastic boxes. Serial numbers link the envelopes to academic databases of information about the seeds’ genetic lineage, varietal traits, and other husbandry details.
Envelopes E: Each envelope holds a 500-seed sample. Adapted from the pharmaceutical industry, a five-layer composite of mylar, plastic, and foil keeps out air and moisture and resists punctures.The Seed Vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million varieties of crops. Each variety will contain on average 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2.5 billion seeds may be stored in the Vault. Currently, the Vault holds more than 830,000 samples, originating from almost every country in the world. Ranging from unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato. In fact, the Vault already holds the most diverse collection of food crop seeds in the world.
Worldwide, more than 1,700 gene banks hold collections of food crops for safekeeping, yet many of these are vulnerable, exposed not only to natural catastrophes and war, but also to avoidable disasters, such as lack of funding or poor management. Something as mundane as a poorly functioning freezer can ruin an entire collection. And the loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal or any form of life.
The Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen), which is responsible for the daily operations of the seed vault, opens for deposits of new seeds three to four times a year. A delegation from Pathum Thani Rice Research Center Thailand, led by Mr. Chairit Damrongkiat, DG of the Rice Department, recently visited Svalbard and The Global Seed Vault. The delegation brought the first deposition of rice seeds from The National Rice Vault.
The focus of the Vault is to safeguard as much of the world’s unique crop genetic material as possible, while also avoiding unnecessary duplication. It will take some years to assemble because some gene banks need to multiply stocks of seed first, and other seeds need regenerating before they can be shipped to Svalbard. For a complete overview of the samples stored in the Vault, you can visit NordGen’s public online database. A temperature of -18ºC is required for optimal storage of the seeds, which are stored and sealed in custom made three-ply foil packages. The packages are sealed inside boxes and stored on shelves inside the vault. The low temperature and moisture levels inside the Vault ensure low metabolic activity, keeping the seeds viable for long periods of time.Dr. Cary Fowler is the Special Adviser (former Executive Director) of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent international organization working to guarantee the conservation of crop diversity. Fowler has more than 30 years of experience in conservation and crop diversity. In the 1980s, he served as the Program Director of the National Sharecropper’s Fund. Throughout the 1990s, he headed the International Conference and Programme on Plant Genetic Resources at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, producing the first ever global assessment of the state of the world’s plant genetic resources. Prior to joining the Global Crop Diversity Trust, Fowler was a Professor and Director of Research in the Department of International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He has been profiled by 60 Minutes and the New Yorker, is the author of several books and more than 75 articles about plant genetic resources. In 2010, he received a Heinz Award for his “vision and efforts in the preservation of the world’s food supply.”
How many varieties of seeds are currently being stored in seed banks worldwide?
There are a bit more than seven million varying samples worldwide. Right now, there are believed to be distinct varieties in 200 different seed banks across the world.
How long can seeds survive in a seed bank?
The viability of seeds really depends on the species. On the lower end, seeds can last up to a few decades. On the upper end, experimental research has estimated that some seeds can survive until 19,600 years from now. However, seed stocks usually dwindle, due to usage, before viability can be accurately tested or proven.
Which crops are most in danger of disappearing?
This is a complicated question and many variables are at play here. No particular crop is on the verge of extinction. But we are entering into a chaotic period, right now particularly, with climate issues and new diseases taking hold of crops. The question then becomes how commercially producible are crops and what is their sustainability.
How are seed banks currently contributing to food security?
Most people don’t appreciate the fact that our domesticated food crops are subject to the same laws of natural selection as everything else in this world – with domesticated crops, their evolution is in our hands. The bread we eat today is made with a different variety of wheat than the bread we consumed as children. Wheat has become more productive and more disease- and pest-resistant. Anything on our planet that doesn’t evolve simply won’t be on our planet anymore because pests and diseases evolve, so plants must too.
Seed evolution comes from gene banks which process tens of thousands of samples every year. Gene banks assist with food security in two ways. First, through the development of new seed varieties which are appropriate to new climates. An existing seed variety in one location can’t simply be moved to another because our future climate is not just hotter – it’s much more variable. Adaptability is sitting in gene banks around the world and is a key to global food security.
For example, UGENE 99, discovered in Uganda in 1999, is a terrible form of wheat stem rust which spreads in the air through wind. It has already been able to spread to India from Africa and it wreaks havoc on wheat fields, destroying a high percentage of wheat crops. Virtually none of the traditional varieties of wheat offer any resistance. Although gene banks contain wheat seed collections that range from 100,000 to 200,000 distinct varieties, the research community has discovered only nine genes with resistance to UGENE 99. This is a prime example of how gene banks are contributing to food security.
But food security also has a lot to do with food prices and gene banks are key in stabilizing the cost of food around the world. When prices spike upwards due to drought or resistance, then poverty-stricken populations are priced out of the market. Aid agencies have budgets denominated in dollars, not pounds or kilos, and stagnant budgets buy less food precisely when more food is needed. Gene banks are crucial to the stabilization of food prices.
How will the new partnership between the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) help solve world hunger? What do you hope this partnership will accomplish?
CGIAR has the most diverse seed collections, but has also never operated on a multi-year budget, which has created a lack of security and lack of ability to plan for the long-term. The new partnership with the Global Crop Diversity Trust gives CGIAR budget security for the next five years. We plan to work across the institute-level to bring in better management and foster long-range planning.
As part of our agreement, we will be working together to complete the Global Crop Diversity Trust’s endowment – to generate enough income to finance gene banks forever.
If we are able to do that, that would be a profound change and it would really be the first time humans have ensured conservation of a species.
For more information about the Global Crop Diversity Trust, visit
Dr. Cary Fowler’s TED talk:
360° view of the vault:
Also check out Veritasium’s YouTube video: