It feels like entering a nuclear bunker. A metal door and after that a tunnel and just concrete and artificial light. The tunnel leads to a second door, and then a third and fourth, all secured with secret codes. With each door it gets colder, and the fifth door is covered in ice and leads to what is called "The most important room in the world," one of the three vaults of the Svalbard Seed Vault on Spitsbergen.

What is the Svalbard Seed Vault? Who runs this vault and owns the seeds? And why do we need a vault in the first place? We explored the collection of almost a billion seeds, hidden in a mountain over a thousand kilometers above the arctic circle, and spoke with its manager and a renowned expert on plant genetics.

The Vault
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is meant to safeguard the world's most important plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, with a maximum level of security. The vault is owned by the Norwegian government and opened in February 2008. The seeds, however, are owned by the genebanks around the world that deposit their samples in Svalbard, free-of-charge. The Nordic Genetic Resource Center (Nordgen) is responsible for the operation and management of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. NordGen's responsibility for the Seed Vault is done according to an agreement with its partners in the funding and management, the Norwegian Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

The vault is filled with 880,000 samples from 71 institutes around the world. Sometimes these institutes are huge organizations that work around the world, but tiny institutes are also included. The International Maize and Improvement Center from Mexico tops the list, with a stunning 130,000 samples, with each single sample made up of 500 seeds. And the list ends with two samples from the botanical garden from the University of Pavia in Italy.

A unique place
The Dutchman Willem Barentsz made the first indisputable discovery of the archipelago, that was called Spitsbergen and is now known as Svalbard, in 1596, when he sighted its coast while searching for the Northern Sea Route. Svalbard is one of the most remote places in the world and located halfway between Norway and the Northpole. The islands are under Norwegian rule since the 1920 Svalbard Treaty, but all forty signatory countries of the treaty have the right to conduct commercial activities on the archipelago without discrimination, although all activity is subject to Norwegian legislation. The treaty limits Norway's right to collect taxes to that of financing services on Svalbard. Therefore, Svalbard has a lower income tax than mainland Norway, and there is no value added tax. Economically, it lives from coal mining, research and tourism. Research on Svalbard centers on Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund, the most accessible areas in the high Arctic. The treaty grants permission for any nation to conduct research on Svalbard, resulting in the Polis Polar Station and the Chinese Arctic Yellow River Station, plus Russian facilities in Barentsburg.

The relevance of a global backup
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is one among many seed vaults or genebanks. More than 1700 genebanks store seeds of food crops, but many of these are prone to both natural and human catastrophes. Not only wars, tsunamis or terrorist attacks can ruin a seed collection, but also something small, like a broken freezer. And losing a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of any animal or other form of life.

One of the threats to a seed bank was even the subject of a well known novel, called "Hunger" by Elise Blackwell. When German troops surrounded Leningrad in 1941, and stayed there for 900 days, cutting off food supplies, the scientists of the Institute of Plant Industry defended its unique genebank with their lives. While refusing to eat the edible collection of tubers and seeds, a number of scientists died of starvation, but saved the seeds.

In recent years, seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan were destroyed during the war. In Syria, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA), used to run an important seed bank in Aleppo. It held genes that may help researchers breed crops that can handle increasing climate change in the years to come, but the war threatened the very existence of the seed bank. In 2015, ICARDA was the first seed bank to request a withdrawal from Svalbard to restore its collection. A year later, on the 29th of September 2016, ICARDA officially launched a sister bank in Terbol, Lebanon. Together with a new bank in Rabat, Morocco, it will make seeds available again to researchers, and assure that samples of the material will be send back to Svalbard.

The importance of plant diversity
Although it is evident from these examples to see how plant diversity can be threatened, because the seeds are destroyed, why is diversity important in the first place? Dr. Theo van Hintum, is head of the Centre for Genetic Resources at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The Dutch genebank is an important contributor of the Svalbard Seed Vault, being the first national genebank to back-up its collection in the vault. Van Hintum explains the immense significance of plant diversity, something which he has studied for thirty years: "The diversity of crops that is used by farmers today is just a fraction of what was used two hundred years ago. However, crop diversity is the raw material plant breeders need to develop new varieties.

And these new varieties are essential to both increase production, withstand diseases and remain productive in the face of changing climates. One should see the diversity of crops as a kind of biocultural heritage, that maybe the most important heritage of mankind to preserve.

Nearly all our material is triplicated, it is stored in our own genebank, in other European genebanks and in Svalbard. We were actually among the first to send seeds to Svalbard, with a shipment of 18,000 samples from our -20 C stores at the Centre for Genetic Resources. Currently, over 90% of our material are also stored in Svalbard, and this number is rising, as we send material every time a sample is regenerated, so the coverage gets more and more complete."

The future
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is working hard to become an ever more global and complete back-up of plant diversity. Last year, forest tree seeds were, for the first time, officially deposited and stored in Svalbard. The Norwegian, Danish and Swedish Ministers of Agriculture carried the first boxes of Nordic forest tree seeds into the vault. Furthermore, two months ago, the Temasek Laboratory in Singapore became the 70th depositor to the vault, when the Minister of Agriculture of Singapore handed over a number of seed bags of rice.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault
In the vault, geopolitical realities do not play any role, and all countries are sharing the same room peacefully. Russia next to the Ukraine and North Korea is also present, with a number of red wooden boxes between the plastic boxes of the other depositors. The only empty shelf is from the Syrian genebank that returned its seeds to build up a new collection. This empty spot illustrates the tremendous relevance and usefulness of the most important room in the world in this unique location.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is cut 120 meters into rock near Longyearbyen, the main settlement, keeping it at a natural −6 °C (21 °F) and refrigerating the seeds to −18 °C (0 °F). And the vault is 130 meters above sea level and lies in an area with no tectonic activity. This way, the vault is completely immune for both climate changes, earthquakes, rising of sea levels and human disasters, like wars or terrorist attacks. Thus it is probably the safest place on earth to keep the most precious resource humanity needs to feed itself in the centuries to come.

TEXT BY: Edgar Tijhuis

July 27, 2017 Living photo: Profimedia

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