The Global Seed Vault is one of the most important seed banks in the world, situated less than a thousand miles from the North Pole in the Longyearbyen settlement on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard. It contains seeds from more than 930,000 crop varieties, and has the capacity to store up to 4.5 million. The location, isolated and surrounded by permafrost, should make the Global Seed Vault one of humanity’s securest safety nets in the event of catastrophe. Yet in recent weeks, news has been spreading across the web of a supposed “breach” at the Vault, “flooding” the entryway and endangering the seeds. Now, while the permafrost on Svalbard is certainly succumbing to the effects of climate change, and we ignore the global warming trend at our peril, the incident at the Seed Vault does not threaten to wipe out one our of greatest back-up plans for biodiversity.1
“Meteorological records in Longyearbyen date back to 1912, so there is a more than 100-year record of air temperature data,” says Arne Instanes, Adjunct Professor of Geotechnics at the University Centre in Svalbard. “The last 30 years has been the warmest 30-year mean since records started in 1912. Last year (2016) had a mean annual air temperature of -0.1 °C which is the highest on record. In 2016 we also experienced several extreme precipitation events during the summer and autumn. It is difficult to say if the trend is accelerating, but clearly 2016 was an unusual and extreme year.”
Though the situation is indeed worsening, the Global Seed Vault was designed with this eventuality in mind: there is water runoff from the spring melt every year, and the seeds are stored uphill from the entrance. Nonetheless, improvements are being made to the structure to further guarantee the safety of our biodiversity.2 Hege Njaa Aschim, the Communications Director of the Seed Vault, told us how drainage ditches will be built on the mountainside to prevent meltwater from the surrounding glacier from accumulating around the access tunnel, as well as new waterproof walls inside the tunnel to protect the vault itself. “The Seed Vault is the world’s heritage, so it’s important we protect it.”
The importance of the Seed Vault in protecting biodiversity in times of crisis has been demonstrated in the field in the last two years. In September 2015, the ICARDA seed bank requested the withdrawal of seeds from Svalbard after its original storage facility in Aleppo, Syria became inaccessible due to the ongoing civil war.3 Seeds were sent to ICARDA’s other sites in Morocco and Lebanon, where they were immediately planted. Then, earlier this year, a new collection of seeds was sent back for “eternal safekeeping” at Svalbard. As the ICARDA report states: “The seeds in ICARDA’s care are an important collection with 65 percent as unique landraces and wild relatives of major dryland food crops of cereals, legumes and forages. Many wild varieties from arid regions have traits that may help crops to meet the challenges posed by climate change, including resistance to drought, heat and pests, and adaptations to salinity.”4
While the seed vault may not be in immediate danger, the situation is emblematic of a bigger picture. The climate is changing, and this poses an enormous threat to biodiversity both wild and agricultural. Crop biodiversity is an invaluable and irreplaceable cornerstone of humanity’s shared heritage. That is why institutions like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault are so important: we cannot afford to let this diversity fade away as the commercial interests behind large-scale monocultures and genetically-modified, corporately-owned seeds come to dominate life on this planet. The end result will be a streamlined, fragile imitation of biodiversity, with ever fewer varieties of animals and plants whose production continues to destroy the habitat of plants, animals and people.
That said, while ex situ conservation sites like the Global Seed Vault are important as catalogues of biodiversity and, in the event of an extreme catastrophe, a last resort, Slow Food believes that biodiversity must be protected primarily in situ, with agricultural practices that support it and don’t put it at risk.