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Located 1,300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure seed storage facility that acts as a food bank for crops that are dying out due to intensive agriculture and unpredictable weather patterns. For our latest issue, writer Jennifer O’Mahony interviewed its manager Grethe Helene Evjen on its history and purpose—and how climate change is proving its not as failsafe as we think.
Grethe Helene Evjen has managed the Svalbard Global Seed Vault since its inception, working to ensure that samples of as many of the world’s crops as possible are kept in storage for the future. Although the Global Seed Vault was designed as a failsafe mechanism to protect food sources, it suffered the effects of climate change itself in a 2017 breach of its seal due to unusually warm and wet weather in the Arctic Circle. An initiative of the Norwegian government and its partners, the vault acts as a backup for crop species that are dying out due to intensive agriculture and unpredictable weather patterns. And it may become useful sooner than we think.
How many samples have been collected in the Vault?
Grethe Helene Evjen
Presently, there are 992,000. But the total deposit is a bit more, since ICARDA (International Center for Agriculture Research in the Dry Areas) in Syria already retrieved a few of the samples. The [ICARDA collection] is a very important seed collection or gene bank, since they had a very huge collection. They had sent some of their seed collection to Svalbard in 2012, but in 2015, they had to escape from where they were based in Aleppo, Syria. They had to reestablish the gene bank in neighboring countries, and they couldn’t get their stocks out of Aleppo in Syria, because they had no access there. So, they had to go back to Svalbard to get their seeds. This was the first time that the seed vault in Svalbard actually proved that it was important.
They took the seeds back?
Yes, because the seeds are not ours. The seeds belong to those who deposit them. It’s like a bank box or backup. It’s a long-term security storage for seeds.
Why is the island of Spitsbergen the ideal place for this vault?
There are a few reasons for that. First of all, it’s far away from the other gene banks. Distance adds a security dimension. If something happened someplace else, maybe it doesn’t happen at Svalbard at the same time. It’s good to have your valuables in different places. And of course, it’s also because of the permafrost inside the mountains. That was first raised by the Nordic Gene Bank in 1984. They decided to put their backup collection in Svalbard. It’s a cold environment, and a cold environment is very good for the seeds. The seeds could be able to survive even with no external cooling.
Tell me about the incident in 2017 when the vault was flooded.
In order to get into the mountain, we had to take away a lot of soil and other masses around the entrance area and then build a tunnel from the entrance building through into the mountain. There is an almost 100-meter long tunnel.
We had a problem because the temperatures in Svalbard were actually warmer than before. We had heavy rainfall coming down on the mountainside in the autumn, and water entered into this tunnel. It was not able to get into the place where the seeds were, but it was not a good situation at all. We sat down with a few expert groups, because permafrost technology is quite complicated, and by spring 2019, we were ready to construct a new tunnel. The upgrade was funded by the Norwegian government and approved by the parliament. The bill was close to 200 million Norwegian Kroners, which is about $22 million.
Tell me, how is the decrease in biodiversity worldwide affecting crops in particular? Are you losing a lot of species to extinction?
We are losing a lot of the diversity in crops, because the crops we eat are originating from one specific area. Since the beginning of agriculture, these seeds have been collected from those areas and then transported around. When people moved or were traveling, they were taking the seeds with them, and then they grew the seeds again in other places. There had been enormous variety. They selected those varieties that were good to them, tasted good, and which they were able to grow. There had been a lot of different varieties grown by farmers in the early 1900s. Some say that we have lost about 80 percent of the varieties that were around in the early 1900s. We think there are about 2.5 million different varieties out there that have been saved in seed banks.
For you, what is the mission of the vault?
The main mission is to provide food safety for future generations. When I started this work, I thought it was a good idea, but I didn’t really think it would be used before maybe 200 years or so. I didn’t understand the true importance of it, but now, things are changing. I think it’s extremely important that we don’t lose this diversity within our crops. Of course it’s for future generations, but not only for them. Someone called it a Doomsday vault, but it’s not. It’s something that we may need all the time in 20 years.