Hundreds of plant species around the world will be backed up today at a “doomsday vault” in the Arctic, the first deposit since an upgrade to futureproof the Norwegian facility against climate change.
The seeds of onions from Brazil, guar beans from central Asia and wildflowers in a meadow at Prince Charles’ home in the UK are among the species being safeguarded at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, in a mountain cavern about 1200 kilometres from the North Pole.
Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg will attend the mass deposit, the single biggest since the opening of the facility in 2008. “The deposit event is especially timely,” she said, because this is the year by which countries should have safeguarded the genetic diversity of crops to meet the UN goal of eliminating hunger by 2030.
The vault is designed as the ultimate insurance policy for restoring crop diversity to smaller seed banks around the world after extreme weather, conflict and other events. The first withdrawal from the bank took place in 2015, to help conservationists who lost access to a major seed bank in Aleppo in the Syrian war.
However, recently the resilience of the vault itself has come under the spotlight. The permafrost on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago where the bank is located, means the seeds should stay frozen even if the -18°C cooling is hit by a power failure.
Yet in October 2016, the entrance tunnel to the facility was flooded due to a combination of heavy rainfall and permafrost melting. While the vault itself was untouched, that year the Arctic experienced record heat that scientists say was almost certainly due to human-made climate change.
The deposits mark the first time the vault has opened its doors to new seeds since a €20 million upgrade that includes a new waterproofed access tunnel, plus measures to prepare it for a world on track to be several degrees hotter by the century’s end.
Seed collectors from 36 banks around the world – eight for the first time – have brought seeds for accessions, as new samples entering the bank are known.
Among those who have made the flight north from Oslo to safeguard their farming future are the Cherokee Nation, the first US indigenous tribe to deposit seeds at the vault. Corn sacred to the Cherokee people, beans and a squash that can stay fresh for a year without refrigeration are among their crops being backed up.
The UK’s Kew Gardens is bringing 27 wild plant species from Prince Charles’ residence in the west of England. “It’s more urgent than ever that we act now to protect this diversity before it really is too late,” the prince said in a statement.
Around 60,000 new seed samples are being added to the vault, taking the total to more than a million. The Indian seed bank ICRISAT is bringing more than 2800 accessions, adding to the more than 110,000 it has already deposited.
Others, like the Julius Kühn Institute in Germany are bringing their first seeds, including the European crab apple (Malus sylvestris), a wild relative of domesticated apples. Seed banks from Morocco and South Korea are also making their first deliveries.
Hannes Dempewolf at the Crop Trust, one of the partners that runs the vault with the Norwegian government, says although today’s deposit takes the samples past the milestone of one million, Svalbard is “not just a number’s game” but is about prioritising unique species.
It is best practice to have a double backup of global seed banks, he says, both at the Svalbard vault and in other seed banks. Maintaining plant diversity is “incredibly important” for developing new, more productive crop varieties, he adds.
But increasingly, he says, seed banks are being called upon to help farmers adapt to a warming world too. “As we see the climate heating up and places looking for [crop] varieties to use in more challenging conditions, these seed banks are being more actively used.”
Safeguarding a diversity of crops is considered vital to humanity being able to feed itself as climate change takes hold.
More on these topics: