November 22, 2021
THIS IS A FANTASTIC GIFT TO THE WORLD: THE SVALBARD SEED BOX
Insight by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective
It is a long-term seed vault, built to stand the test of time - and the challenge of natural or man-made disasters. The Global Seed Vault represents the world's largest collection of crop diversity. Millions of tiny grains from more than 930,000 varieties of food crops are now stored in the Global Seed Vault in Spitsbergen, part of Norway's Svalbard archipelago. A huge vault containing the largest collection of biodiversity. The purpose of the vault is to store duplicates (backups) of seed samples from the world's crop collections. There are dozens of gene banks around the world, but their security is increasingly at risk due to the climate crisis, growing environmental disasters and conflicts. This is why in 2008 a global seed vault was set up to serve as a reserve repository, now run by the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center.
The permafrost and thick rock ensure that the seed samples will remain frozen even without electricity. The Global Seed Vault is the ultimate insurance policy for the world's food supply, providing future generations with the tools to overcome the challenges of climate change and population growth.
Why is it crucial to protect the biodiversity of seeds and crops?
Over the past 50 years, agricultural practices have changed dramatically, with technological advances enabling large-scale crop production. But while yields have increased, biodiversity has declined to the point that today only 30 crops provide 95% of human food and energy needs. Only 10% of the rice varieties that China used in the 1950s are still used today, for example. The United States has lost over 90% of its fruit and vegetable varieties since 1900. This monocultural nature of agriculture leaves the food supply more susceptible to threats such as disease and drought.
The seeds lying in the vault freezer include wild and ancient varieties, many of which are no longer in common use. And many do not exist outside the seed collections from which they come. But the genetic diversity in the vault could provide the DNA traits needed to develop new strains for whatever challenges the world or a particular region faces in the future: one of the 200,000 rice varieties in the vault could have the trait needed to adapt rice to higher temperatures, for example, or to find resistance to a new pest or disease. This is particularly important at a time of deep climate crisis. Having access to a wide range of genetic traits allows us to address the challenges we face in growing food, for example sudden and devastating epidemics that could threaten food access and food sovereignty.
Many countries around the world are threatened by food insecurity, either because of the climate crisis or because of dependence on a single, potentially vulnerable crop. Think of Ghana, Myanmar, Bangladesh, countries in the Sahel belt, such as Mali, where people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods but recurrent droughts and floods can put traditional agriculture and access to food at serious risk. Saving seeds that can adapt to drier or wetter climates is therefore crucial.
"We know that we will need more food in the future, we know that we will have to deal with climate change, droughts, new plant diseases. These genetic resources are the key to meeting these challenges, because genes and biodiversity are a kind of insurance for the future", explains Åsmund Asda, a Norwegian biologist working at the Nordic Genetic Resource Center as coordinator of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. During an interesting meeting in Verona, the scientist told how this seed vault came into being, what his role is inside it and what his future plans are. "This is a fantastic gift to the world".