I know the title sounds ominous, but there really is a place where the world’s seeds are kept against the day we lose them because of some human-made or natural disaster. Started in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway contains nearly 4,000 plant species and more than 800,000 individual plastic-sheathed samples. The employees at the seed vault have been entrusted by the world’s governments with the safekeeping of humanity’s most prized varieties of crops. Almost every country has sent seeds. Nigeria, Mexico, the US, and even North Korea (their boxes stand out because, unlike everyone else’s, the boxes they send are wooden instead of metal and their labels are handwritten). Once seeds are placed inside, the boxes cannot be opened or removed by anyone outside the country which sent them. There has only been one time when seeds have been taken out—but more on that later.
Seed storage containers on metal shelving inside the vault
The seed bank takes security very seriously. And why not? Its contents may one day save humanity. And why Norway? It was one of the few countries that both developing and developed countries trusted with their precious seeds. In February 2008, the late Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai made the first deposit, a box of rice seeds. You might ask yourself why we need a ‘seed bank’ at all. Surely, we are technologically advanced enough not to need such a thing. WRONG. If a catastrophe strikes civilization, all that stands between us and widespread starvation is this seed bank.
Diseases currently active in the United States—including the potato late blight (the same one that caused the Irish potato famine)—have the potential to cause widespread starvation. The only thing that may help might lie in an obscure variety found in the seed bank’s vaults.
Illuminated art installation above the entrance to the Vault
Saving seeds for future use or help is nothing new. Agriculture started in Mesopotamia around 8000 B.C. Shortly afterwards, farmers realized they should probably put some seeds aside—just in case. The mission to save the world’s seeds can sometimes be deadly…no, really. When the Germans were blockading what was then Leningrad, the scientists who worked at the Vavilov Institute seed bank protected the seeds stored inside the buildings. The seeds amounted to tons (literally) of food that could have fed the millions who were dying. At some point, most of the seed collection was smuggled out to a hiding place in the Ural Mountains. However, A.G. Stchukin, a specialist in peanuts, died of starvation in the building. So did D.S. Ivanov, a rice specialist. Both died surrounded by thousands and thousands of packets of seeds.
I mentioned that seeds had only been removed once in the seed bank’s history. It happened fairly recently. What would cause such a momentous event? A 2015 CNN article summed up the situation:
"But it was not a natural disaster that has caused scientists to have to dip in and make the first significant withdrawal from the vault. Rather, it was the most preventable of man-made disasters —war. The bloody conflict in Syria has left scientists at an important gene bank in Aleppo— where new strains of drought- and heat-resistant wheat have been developed over time—unable to continue their work in recent years."
One of the most important gene banks was located in the Syrian city of Aleppo. It is run by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas. According to CNN, it has “135,000 varieties of wheat, fava bean, lentil and chickpea crops, as well as the world's most valuable barley collection.” When the Aleppo gene bank was compromised, the "Doomsday Vault" came to the rescue: scientists stocked up on their critical inventory of seeds and began planting them at new facilities in Lebanon and Morocco. And so the staff at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is mostly under the cold Arctic tundra (in case the power ever goes out, it is cold enough to keep the seeds safe), continues assuring that we will have what the media has called an ‘insurance policy’ against the elements and our own stupidity.