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That Arctic Seed Vault Isn’t Just There for a Doomsday

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In the seven years since the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened, hundreds of thousands of seed samples have gone into its icy tombs. And not one has come out—until now. This week the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas asked for the return of 325 little black boxes of seeds it had stored in the Svalbard vault. For many years, the center housed its own seed bank near Aleppo, Syria. Now, its scientists hope to use the Svalbard samples to regenerate that collection outside of their war-torn home.

Built beneath a mountain on an Arctic island halfway between Norway and the North Pole, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault currently stores over 800,000 seed samples from 5,100 species of crops and their wild relatives. These seeds are the product of 10,000 years or so of agriculture, history they hold in their genes. The Svalbard vault’s job is to protect them from catastrophe, including nuclear war. It’s often called the “doomsday vault,” conjuring images of the sole survivors of a global disaster jumpstarting agriculture from scratch with the help of Svalbard’s frozen collection.

But Svalbard is just one part of a global network of seed banks, including the center based in Syria. Each one has a specialty—the Aleppo bank focuses on crops that grow in dry areas—and each one has been sending back-up samples to Svalbard since it opened in 2008. “It’s like a safety deposit box in the bank,” explains Thomas Payne, head of the wheat collection at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center outside of Mexico City.

Meanwhile, the centers do much more than store samples. “It’s their mandate to allow this material to be accessed by scientists and breeders and farmers,” says Brian Lainoff, a spokesperson for Crop Trust, which administers the Svalbard Vault. “A collection is not meant to be a museum.” No, it is meant to help farmers and scientists find the genes they need to improve today’s crops—and breed varieties that might be better able to respond to emerging challenges. For example, the Aleppo center’s repository might contain a gene that makes our most important crops more drought tolerant, an important adaptation to climate change.

Amazingly, the center’s headquarters in Aleppo has continued to function through more than four years of Syrian civil war. The seeds stored there remain in deep-freeze, and locals on its staff even managed to continue sending samples to scientists and farmers who request them. Even as the fighting reached Aleppo and international staff fled to regional offices in Lebanon and Morocco, the Syrian employees who remained kept sending samples to Svalbard. They managed to back up more than 80 percent of the collection—that’s 375 species—in the Arctic vault, earning the center the prestigious Gregor Mendel Innovation Prize this year.

Now the seed bank wants to turn its attention away from evacuation toward generating seeds for people to use. “Due to the fact that we are getting more seed requests, we will need to multiply most of the accessions,” says Ahmed Amri, the center’s director of genetic resources—that is, plant some of crops and harvest their seeds so they have enough to share. At this point in the conflict, “this can only be done outside Syria.”

Syria's scientists hope to use the Svalbard samples to regenerate that collection outside of their war-torn home.

Seed vault conspiracy

We get many questions about this film from a wide range of audience members. But, it turns out, there are many questions that people seem to have in common. So here is a handy list of frequently asked questions to help answer those questions.

How will the Svalbard Global Seed Vault help us re-populate the world’s food supply in the event of widespread famine or apocalyptic disaster?
Isn’t it a bad idea to put all these seeds in one place? What if something happens to the Vault in Svalbard?
Isn’t the Vault just a conspiracy by Big Ag to control the world’s food supply?
That’s wonderful that the Vault exists. But how long can seeds really stay viable up there?
So the Vault contains backup copies of seeds. How does an institution even make “copies” of seeds?
What was all that stuff in the film about plant breeding? Aren’t you just talking about GMOs?
Are there other collaborations like The Potato Park around the world? And why don’t we have that in the United States?
I really enjoyed the film, but what can I do about this issue? I’m only one person.

Q: How will the Svalbard Global Seed Vault help us re-populate the world’s food supply in the event of widespread famine or apocalyptic disaster?

A: The simple answer is: it won’t directly or immediately. The Seed Vault was never meant to supply seeds directly to farmers. That would take enormous facilities located all over the world. When it first opened, the news media quickly labeled it as “The Doomsday Vault.” But this is a misnomer. The primary purpose of the vault is to act as a failsafe backup for the roughly 1,400 seed banks all around the world. These seed banks conserve crop diversity for use in crop breeding efforts so that farmers have access to disease and pest resistant varieties. But most of these seed banks don’t have robust backup systems for their stocks, which is where Svalbard comes in. As the film details, there is great fragility in our global seed banks. If a seed bank is destroyed, and those particular varieties only existed in that one seed bank, then that diversity is lost forever. It’s extinct. But, with Svalbard, these institutions can have their stock in two places. Should anything disastrous occur to an institution itself, the seeds will still be protected in Svalbard and can be resupplied to the seed bank that experienced the loss.

Q: Isn’t it a bad idea to put all these seeds in one place? What if something happens to the Vault in Svalbard?

A: The good news is that these seeds aren’t all in one place. That’s the whole point of why the Svalbard Global Seed Vault exists. The seeds that exist in the vault are copies. The “originals” – additional seeds of the same variety – are held in the institutions that deposited them – institutions that are located all around the globe. While nothing in life is 100% guaranteed, the likelihood that the seeds in Svalbard would somehow be destroyed is extremely, extremely remote (like its location!).

Q: Isn’t the Vault just a conspiracy by Big Ag to control the world’s food supply?

A: No. There are several important things to remember. First: The Svalbard Global Seed Vault provides a “safety deposit box” for the institutions that put seeds there. Only the depositor has access to the seeds, meaning that Monsanto cannot fly over to Svalbard and start taking out genetic resources that belong to other institutions and countries. Monsanto could take out seeds it deposited; but it hasn’t deposited any.

Second: the institutions that are putting seeds in Svalbard are, by and large, governmental and public or non-profit institutions. The Vault is not a place for private companies with patented GMOs to house backup copies of their material.

Third: there are no secret financial beneficiaries related to the Vault. Storing seeds in the Vault is free to depositors, with Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust paying for operational costs. The deposit of samples in Svalbard does not constitute a legal transfer of seeds or genetic resources. There is no transfer of ownership and no transfer of the physical or intellectual property. The Seed Vault does not own the seeds. Norway does not own the seeds. Neither does the Global Crop Diversity Trust or the Nordic Gene Bank (which manages the Vault’s operations and inventory database). The seeds are 100% owned by the individual depositors. Funding for the Trust has come from the U.S., Norway, Australia, Sweden, Switzerland, the UK, and many other countries including some developing countries as well as several foundations including the Gates Foundation. The work of the Global Crop Diversity Trust is mandated and overseen by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Fourth: there is a binding legal agreement that depositors must sign in order to put seeds in the vault. This agreement is a contract that specifies the status of the deposits (namely that they belong to the depositor and will only be returned to that depositor) and states that the Seed Vault will do its best to conserve the deposited seed according to high international standards. Norway regularly reports about the operations of the Seed Vault to the 133 national signatories of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. This treaty establishes the international rules for access and benefit sharing for seeds, and contains many provisions to promote conservation, research, “farmers’ rights,” and information sharing. You can read more about it at www.planttreaty.org. Through the Treaty, the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources and the Vault’s own International Advisory Council, the management and operations of the Seed Vault are visible and accessible to all. One more step toward getting everybody “singing from the same piece of music.”

Q: That’s wonderful that the Vault exists. But how long can seeds really stay viable up there?

A: This is actually a complicated question, because it varies between different crops. This also is dependent on how well the seeds were prepared in their packaging before shipment to the Vault. However, all things being equal, we do have a sense of how long certain crops should last in cold storage. Hopefully this chart can give you a snapshot of what scientists expect from what we know about long-term seed storage:

Q: So the Vault contains backup copies of seeds. How does an institution even make “copies” of seeds?

A: This is a great question, and one that is often overlooked. Institutions that hold seeds in long-term cold storage must grow out their stock every so often. If they just put seeds in their vaults and forgot about them, sooner or later they will die, because nothing lasts forever. And this relates back directly to how “copies” are made. Quite simply, seed banks plant some of their seeds, grow the plants and harvest fresh new seed. But the process can be tricky, because you want the new sample to contain the same diversity in the same proportions as the original sample. You don’t want what is known as “genetic drift” wherein each time a crop is grown out it changes slightly through the conditions of the grow-out. To a certain degree this is unavoidable, but scientists work very hard to make sure that copies are copies.

Q: What was all that stuff in the film about plant breeding? Aren’t you just talking about GMOs?

A: No. Plant breeding – farmers or scientists “crossing” plants by transferring pollen from the flower of one variety to the flower of another – has been going on for thousands of years. This form of plant breeding is still the primary way in which new varieties are produced. For most crops it is the only way, because there are no GMO varieties at all for dozens and dozens of crops. So diversity is required for this kind of plant breeding.

Plant breeding is the foundation of modern agriculture’s ability to reliably grow crops with good yields, particular tastes, sizes, colors, etc. The crops we know as bananas, wheat, rice, and potatoes are that way because a breeder – maybe even a farmer, or a person formally trained in biology and genetics – created that variety over the course of many years. But, (and this is the important part) just because this process has taken place does not necessarily make the variety a GMO. It is also worth noting that the “natural” or wild versions of most of our crops (i.e. what existed before plant breeding), would literally not be recognizable had they not been bred over many years of crossing preferred varieties with one another. Just as one example, corn, prior to plant breeding, was just a couple of seeds stacked one above another. No cob. Not too delicious sounding, either.

There is a big problem with the name GMO because it stands for Genetically Modified Organism, and that could mean a lot of things. It is an inclusive term that tends to draw into it things that do not belong. For example, technically a plant breeder is genetically modifying a crop by creating a cross. Just like a man and a woman are technically modifying human genetics by giving birth to a child: that child is a genetic cross of the parents the same way a new plant variety is a cross between its parent varieties. That doesn’t make the child a GMO! What we think of as GMOs are different from this. Generally speaking, the outrage with GMOs has to do with the artificial inclusion of genes into crops that otherwise would never be found there to begin with. In most cases, the aim with GMO crops is to introduce a new trait to a plant species that didn’t occur there naturally. If this trait is introduced with certain modern technologies, the resulting variety will be a GMO. If traditional technologies are used, it won’t be. “Traditional technologies” are not as powerful as the newer GMO technologies, which can sometimes transfer genes or traits into a new variety that elude traditional plant breeders.

But this is quite different from the aims of plant breeders who use genetic resources like Crop Wild Relatives to introduce new traits into species. That is because, while Wild Relatives may contain new traits not seen in a domesticated crop variety, they are themselves the ancestors of that variety. They are the non-domesticated origins of that crop and may contain robust resilience to help our domesticated crops in the future. So hopefully it is clear why this is different from, say, taking Pig genes and injecting them into a Tomato.

It is also worth noting that GMO seeds are available for planting in some countries, but not others. In the U.S. for instance, this includes the following crops: corn, soybean, canola, cotton, papaya, sugar beet, alfalfa and squash.

Q: Are there other collaborations like The Potato Park around the world? And why don’t we have that in the United States?

A: There are smaller collaborations like The Potato Park around the world. But not quite as developed in terms of holistic community development, conservation success, and institutional integration (for example, with The International Potato Center in Lima). The Potato Park is such a unique entity for many reasons, but the most significant may be the geography. Peru is considered, based on Vavilov’s early research, the center of diversity for the potato. So it is more important a venture like this happen for the potato here than, say, Idaho. The United States (and much of North America) is somewhat barren in terms of crops that have developed a huge amount of diversity here. According to Vavilov, there is not a whole lot going on in this part of the world (see map). We know now, after many more years of research, that there are some crops that probably originated in North America (see below map). Sunflowers and Strawberries are examples. But it is still not a whole lot compared to certain areas in the rest of the world. So for an initiative to take place involving on-farm conservation and indigenous community engagement, it may be more important for us to set our sights elsewhere.

(1) Mexico-Guatemala, (2) Peru-Ecuador-Bolivia, (2A) Southern Chile, (2B) Southern Brazil, (3) Mediterranean, (4) Middle East, (5) Ethiopia, (6) Central Asia, (7) Indo-Burma, (7A) Siam-Malaya-Java, (8) China and Korea

Q: I really enjoyed the film, but what can I do about this issue? I’m only one person.

A: This might be the most important question of all. The truth is that crop diversity is a multi-tiered issue that requires action on all levels. Much of it involves scientists, politicians, and government institutions acting. But, as the film shows us, many of the best efforts to work on this issue have happened “on the ground” by farmers, communities, and individuals. All it really takes is passion for the issue and the will to make a difference to get involved. To help, we’ve created a section of our web site under the heading “Action!” We encourage you to explore it and find ways you can learn about where to buy food sourced from diverse varieties of crops, support institutions that champion this issue, and even get involved in seed lending libraries (or creating your own!).

Seed vault conspiracy We get many questions about this film from a wide range of audience members. But, it turns out, there are many questions that people seem to have in common. So here is a