Global Seed Vault Opens for First Deposits of the Year

Strawberry, watermelon, and pumpkin seeds will enter the "doomsday" vault.

Asmund Asdal unloads seed inside the vault.
Asmund Asdal unloads seed inside the vault.

Asmund Asdal

The icy doors of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will be opened this week for the first seed deposits of 2021. Strawberry, watermelon, and pumpkin seeds will be just some of the seeds to be securely locked away in the cavernous enclosure for safekeeping. The year’s first deposits include seeds of many crops from Africa, Europe, and South Asia.

Located in Svalbard, an island between mainland Norway and the North Pole, the seed vault holds the world’s largest crop diversity collection. It’s been dubbed a “doomsday” vault, built to protect crops in case they are destroyed due to drastic events such as extreme weather or even wars. In these worst-case scenarios, countries could retrieve seeds from the vault and grow them again.

Seeds are stored at minus 18 C (minus 4 F). They’re sealed in special four-ply foil packages which are then placed in sealed boxes on shelves in the vault. Low temperatures and low moisture levels in the vault mean low metabolic activity for the seeds, which should keep them viable for decades, centuries, or perhaps even thousands of years for some of them. If the electricity in the vault were to fail, the permafrost surrounding the vault will keep the seeds viable.

“It’s always fascinating to see the different boxes and labels and know that often these seeds have traveled from so far away – sometimes from the other side of the world," Åsmund Asdal, seed vault coordinator, said in an interview with the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international conservation organization that supports genebanks and the vault.

“We never open the boxes and have to take great care with them – the seeds inside remain the property of the depositors at all times, plus they represent thousands of years of agricultural history.”

The Story of the Seed Vault

Seeds are unloaded outside the vault in Svalbard.
Seeds are unloaded outside the vault in Svalbard. Asmund Asdal

The seed vault was first opened in 2008. It is owned by Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The Nordic Genetic Resources Center (NordGen) operates the facility and keeps an online database of samples stored inside. 

The vault safeguards more than 1 million seed samples, deposited by nearly 90 genebanks over the past 13 years. The facility has the capacity to store as many as 4.5 million seed samples. Each sample contains an average of about 500 seeds, so 2.25 billion seeds can be kept at the vault.

This year’s first deposits of fruit and vegetable seeds coincide with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations’ International Year of Fruits and Vegetables.

For this deposit, five genebanks are depositing nearly 6,500 samples from the Cote d’Ivoire, India, Germany, Zambia, and Mali.

AfricaRice in Cote d’Ivoire is sending two boxes of oryza rice seeds. ICRISAT in India is storing seven boxes of seeds including sorghum, chickpeas, and pearl millet. The Julius Kühn-Institute in Germany is sending one box of fragaria vesca, a type of wild strawberry. SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Zambia is storing 19 boxes of seeds including sorghum, maize, wheat, beans, watermelon, and peas. And the Institut d'Economie Rurale, the national genebank in Mali, is sending one box of orysa rice.

The entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault stands on Svalbard archipelago far north of the Arctic Circle
The entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault stands on Svalbard archipelago far north of the Arctic Circle.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

“The Svalbard Global Seed Vault protects the work and heritage of generations of farmers going back more than 10,000 years and contains the crop diversity to adapt our agriculture to the changing climate,” said Crop Trust Executive Director Stefan Schmitz. “We are losing the earth’s biodiversity at an accelerating rate. Conserving our crop diversity and making it available for use is a prerequisite for future food security and better food systems. As a backup to genebanks, the Seed Vault plays an essential role in food and nutrition security.”

Despite the pandemic, there are plans to open up the vault again in May and October.

“[The pandemic] is putting increased pressure on genebanks around the world, however, these institutions were still able to deposit their seeds for safeguarding, a testament to the resilience and importance of multilateral cooperation,” said Schmitz. “Amidst this great upheaval are signs that positive change is still possible and that the global community can continue to work together to solve urgent crises.”

View Article Sources
  1. "FAQ about the Seed Vault." Crop Trust.