Seeds of the Future

In a vault in the frozen Norwegian wilderness lies a collection of seeds for the world’s most important crops – a treasury intended to help us overcome the challenges the global food supply faces in tomorrow’s world, according to Marie Haga, Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

For six years now, the vault that is intended to secure the survival of the human race has lain safely amid the permafrost of Norway’s Svalbard Archipelago, surrounded by the Arctic Ocean. This is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, on the island of Spitsbergen. At temperatures of around -18°C, and with a security system to match that of Fort Knox, some 800,000 seeds from the most important crops worldwide – above all rice, wheat and maize – are stored deep in the bowels of a mountain. Eventually, the number of seed samples will be increased to 4.5 million. The secure seed vault is a project run by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which manages the seed storage facility in conjunction with the Norwegian government. Marie Haga has been Executive Director since 2013.

Ms. Haga, why is it necessary for us to store staple agricultural crops such as rice, maize and wheat in a vault in the Arctic? Agriculture is facing unprecedented challenges. First, we will have over a billion more mouths to feed in the next 10 years. This means that food production will have to be increased by around 15 percent. And second, we know, for instance, that rice harvest yields drop by 10 percent when the temperature on Earth increases by one degree Celsius. This is a dramatic situation, because we also know that the temperature won’t increase by just one degree Celsius, but by three or four degrees. These figures are from the World Bank, which is not known for being particularly radical. The effects this will have on rice production are unknown, but what is incontrovertibly clear is that we will have to produce more food on less land with less water and less energy.

In the future, we will have to produce more food on less land, with less water and less energy.” Marie Haga

What role does the seed vault on Spitsbergen play in all of this? For agriculture to be able to adapt to the new conditions, we need biodiversity. We are aware of which crop varieties are important to us today. But what if a new disease were suddenly to appear and wipe out all our wheat fields? We can only develop solutions to these sorts of problems if we have genetic diversity. Let me illustrate this with an example. At the start of the 20th century, there were around 7,100 varieties of apple. Today, there are about 1,000 varieties. In other words, we have lost 6,100 apple varieties. Of course, it could be argued that 1,000 apple varieties are ample. The problem is that one of these 6,100 varieties just might have had the traits that we need today to fight a new apple disease, or to adapt orchards to higher temperatures. If we lose diversity, we lose options for the future – that’s what it’s all about.

What happened to these 6,100 varieties? Why did they not survive? Varieties die off throughout the world for all kinds of different reasons. There could be climatic factors at work, but the most important component is the way we farm. The commercialization of agriculture has made farmers dependent on large harvests to survive financially. They concentrate on a small number of varieties that produce a high yield. In Sri Lanka, for instance, there were about 2,000 varieties of rice in 1959. Today, the rice farmers use just five varieties. The FAO – the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization – estimates that, since the start of the 20th century, we have lost almost 75 percent of crop varieties. While we can’t recreate what has disappeared, we can ensure that we hold onto what we have today – and keep it in readiness for the future.

And for that we need a high-security vault in the eternal ice? The Spitsbergen vault is the final backup copy for the whole system. There are 1,750 seed banks worldwide, many of which are in excellent condition, such as those in Germany and the USA. However, a large number of these seed banks are in a vulnerable state, for example because they are in an area plagued by political unrest. It isn’t complicated to manage these gene banks. However, you do need electricity, and if there is a power outage, it is disastrous. Or take the Philippines. Their seed bank was destroyed by a devastating flood. When they were in the process of rebuilding the facility, a fire broke out, and extremely valuable genetic material was lost. Our goal is to develop a rational and cost-effective worldwide system in order to safeguard the most important crops globally for all time.

How do you plan to go about this? By duplicating the seeds and storing a copy on another continent in case something goes wrong. At present, there are – in addition to the 1,750 gene banks in various countries – 11 international collections that contain huge amounts of material. There are collections in Syria, Mexico and Nigeria. The Aleppo gene bank in Syria, for example, has the most valuable collection of wheat seeds in the entire world. With that country at war, however, no one knows what will become of this gene bank. Some of the people there have taken on the huge responsibility of maintaining the ICARDA facility. They buy diesel fuel for the generators on the black market to keep the cooling system running. If anything were to happen to that gene bank, it would be a dramatic loss for the future of wheat production. With this danger in mind, we started duplicating the seeds a few years ago and sending them to Spitsbergen. With the latest delivery, duplicates of almost the entire collection are now stored in the vault there.

How are the seed samples actually transported to Spitsbergen? The seeds, perhaps a couple hundred of them per accession, are packed and sealed in an airtight, aluminum-coated package, then placed in boxes and shipped. The Spitsbergen facility differs from the national and the international gene banks in that it is a “black box” arrangement, meaning that the material belongs to the country or organization that has deposited it. No one else is entitled to open it – neither the Norwegian government nor us, nor anybody else.

And what if somebody else does that nevertheless? Well, there is a very tight security system in place. The vault has been built deep inside the mountain, and it is protected by a whole array of alarm systems. It isn’t easy to get into the place. Its architecture is designed to withstand even the force of an atomic bomb. To protect it against rising sea levels, the facility was built in the mountain at an altitude of 130 metres above sea level. Should the sea ever reach that height, we’ll have big problems any way you care to look at it.

Isn’t it dangerous to put this vault into the hands of a single country? Formally, the vault belongs to Norway. It’s on Norwegian soil – in a very stable region where there are no earthquakes, for example. The danger of a terrorist attack there is also on the low end of the scale. Spitsbergen is an island, and everything there is very contained and manageable. The democratic system in the whole of Europe would have to collapse before Norway would be unable to fulfill its obligations in this project. And don’t forget: Spitsbergen only has the backup copy. All of the material that is deposited there also exists in the “real” world. It is not only stored in one place, but on two continents. For the system we are working on, it is the national and international gene banks all over the world that really matter. Most of the material stored in Norway today, and which we hope we will never need to make use of, is derived from these international collections. If everything goes well on Earth, we won’t need to have recourse to this collection.

Who does the rice farmer turn to if he decides that, after a series of bad harvests, he wants to try out a new variety? Can he go shopping at your facility? Samples are sent to the vault, not the other way around. Nothing leaves Spitsbergen. Farmers and breeders can contact the gene banks in their own country or the international seed collections to request samples. They don’t even have to pay for them. All they have to do is sign an agreement. We want breeders and farmers to work together and, for instance, try to achieve a better yield with less water in dry regions. We recently organized a conference for scientists specializing in wheat. They were thrilled that, after 15 years and 3,170 attempts at crossing with genetic material from 26 countries, we finally succeeded in breeding a new variety of wheat in Canada that is more heat-resistant, and at the same time less likely to snap in the field. This is a perfect example of the fruitful exchange of ideas – the worldwide cooperation that we are striving to achieve. What we need now is more intelligent ways of doing so. And time is of the essence.

What if a farmer, for instance after a natural catastrophe in the next millennium, should make his or her way to Spitsbergen in search of a particular variety of wheat: How would he know which of the 4.5 million seed samples in aluminum packages is the one he is looking for? There are actually two different vaults: the “real” one in Spitsbergen, in which the seeds are stored, and a second one which contains all the relevant information. As a farmer or breeder, you have no idea what is stored in Spitsbergen. The vault is of value only when it is combined with an information system. Our intention is not to create a museum, but rather a resource that can be utilized.

The mission of the Trust is to preserve the diversity of the most important crop varieties “forever.” How is this to be financed? To date, around 95 percent of donations are from governments. However, we are in the process of bringing wealthy individuals, institutions and organizations on board. Every single dollar counts, for we are losing more biodiversity every day. The good thing is that we know how much it costs to keep the system up and running. We need $34 million a year. In order to guarantee that the seed samples are safeguarded on a long-term basis, we need an endowment fund of $850 million.

Wild relatives are what we call plants that in many cases have characteristics that make them extremely robust. We send out teams to look for such varieties. Marie Haga

That’s a lot of money for frozen seeds… A couple of years ago we built an opera house in Norway. It cost $550 million and isn’t even particularly attractive to look at. So the fund would be around one and a half opera houses. A single soccer stadium for the World Cup in Brazil – the national stadium in the capital, Brasilia – is set to cost more than a billion dollars. And that’s only one of 12 stadiums for the event. So let’s not talk about this being a lot of money. As an insurance policy to secure the world’s food supply for all time, it’s excellent value for money. And, by the way, there’s one thing we haven’t spoken about at all yet. There is something we call “wild relatives,” and it’s absolutely fascinating. There are still countless wild plant varieties, most of which have never been catalogued. These varieties are often extremely robust. Imagine a plant that has survived on a craggy cliff ledge, or with very little moisture in the desert. These wild relatives could have characteristics that we now need. This is why we are drawing up maps and sending out project teams to search for such varieties. They could have genes that are beneficial to our domestic varieties. If we are going to need 15 percent more food for the world over the next decade, then agricultural crops will have to adapt quickly. Biodiversity is the prerequisite for this development.

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