Frequently asked questions

 

Logo Svalbard Globale Seed Vault

Frequently asked questions

  

What is a seed vault?
Svalbard Global Seed Vault is not a gene bank, but a safety-storage for preservation of duplicate collections of seeds on behalf of genebanks. The Seeds in the Seed Vault shall only be accessed when the original seed collections have been lost for any reason.

The depositors will retain their rights over the seeds. There will be no way that Svalbard Global Seed Vault, or Norway can give access to the seeds without consent from the depositors. The seeds will be returned to the depositors on  request.

How many seeds will be stored in Svalbard Global Seed Vault?
The Seed Vault has the capacity to store 4,5 million different seed samples. Each sample will contain on  average 500 seeds, so a maximum of 2,25 billion seeds may be stored in the Seed Vault. The Seed Vault will therefore have the capacity to hold all the unique seed samples that are conserved today by all the approximately 1400 genebanks that are found in more than 100 countries all over the world. In addition the Seed Vault will have capacity to also store many new seed samples that may be collected in the future.

When in full use, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault will represent the world’s largest collection of seeds.

What type of seeds may be stored in the Seed Vault?
Priority will be given to crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture, which is of the utmost importance for developing countries where food security is a challenge. More than 7,000 plant species have historically been used in human diets; however, less than 150 species are today used in modern agriculture. Only 12 plant species today represent the major vegetable source in today's menu.

Within each plant species a high number of varieties and great genetic diversity may be found. For example, there are more than 100,000 varieties of rice.

How will the seeds be stored?
The seeds will be stored in minus 18 degrees Celsius. The seeds will be placed in sealed packages that again will be placed in sealed boxes that will be stored on high shelves inside the vault. The low temperature and the limited access to oxygen will ensure low metabolic activity and cause a delay in the aging of the seeds. The permafrost will still ensure the continued viability of the seeds if the electricity supply should fail.  

Who will own the seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault?
Each country or institution will still own and control access to the seeds they have deposited. 

Why Svalbard?
Svalbard is a unique location for such a facility in multiple ways. Svalbard has perfect climate and geology for underground cold storage. Because of the permafrost, the temperature will never rise above minus 3,5 Celsius. The sandstone at Svalbard is stable to build in and low in radiation. In terms of security, Svalbard scores high compared to the locations of many other gene banks in the world. The infrastructure is good with daily flights and with a reliable source of energy.

What if the permafrost in Svalbard begins to melt?
The prospects of climate change have been given consideration when searching for the optimal location for the Seed Vault. The Seed Vault will be located at such an altitude and so deep into the mountains that neither the potential rise in sea level nor the melting of the permafrost is considered as a potential threat in the foreseeable future.

What is a gene bank?
It’s a facility for maintaining crop diversity in the form of seeds, stored and conserved in a frozen state. The ideal temperature is between minus 10 and minus 20 degrees Celsius. Each different type of seed is stored in its own container, such as a bottle, can, or in sealed a aluminium foil package. Genebanks may also contain living plants and parts of plants in those cases where it is difficult to store the crop in the form of seeds.

How many genebanks are there?
The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN lists about 1400 collections of seeds. Major genebanks include those in China, Russia, Japan, India, S. Korea, Germany and Canada. In addition there are genebanks with an international profile, especially those that are operated by the Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

How many samples do genebanks currently house?
Approximately 6,5 million seeds sample are stored in genebanks today. Only about 1-2 million of these are estimated to be distinct.

Who uses genebanks?
Plant breeders and researchers are the major users of gene banks. The diversity stored in the genebanks is the raw material for plant breeding and for basic biological research. Several thousand samples are distributed annually for such purposes.

Is it really necessary to conserve such a big diversity of crops?
Different crops varieties have different characteristics and not all the differences may be visible to the eye. Genetic traits may provide differences in disease resistance, adaptability to various soils and climates, different tastes and nutritional qualities. If we ever need to use the potentially unique and sometimes hidden traits found in a particular crop variety, then we must ensure that the variety is available.

What are the threats to genebanks and their collections?
The biggest threat comes from lack of resources and funding. Poor management can be a major problem. Genebanks have been subject to natural disasters, war and civil strife. Many genebanks are situated in developing countries and many have been faced with different challenges over time.  

How many plant varieties have been lost?
It is impossible to know, as there is no way of ascertaining how many different types have existed in the past. But, surely, much diversity has already been lost. The number of plant varieties used during the last 30 years of intensification of agriculture has been dramatically reduced. Extinction is forever. Different varieties of wheat and potato can disappear as permanently as the dinosaurs.

How long can seeds live in a frozen state?
It varies with the type of crop. Some crops, such as peas may survive for 20-30 years only, but other crops, such as sunflower and some of the grains may survive for many decades or even hundreds of years. Eventually, all seeds will lose the ability to germinate - they’ll die. Before this happens, a few seeds are taken from the stored samples and planted. Fresh, new seed is then harvested and placed in storage. This way, the original variety can be perpetuated, and last almost forever.

Why is the seed vault on Svalbard important for the developing countries?
Food security is a challenge in many developing countries. This is caused by a number of factors, e.g. lack of appropriate infrastructure for preservation of biodiversity. The security provided by Svalbard could consequently be of particular importance for many developing countries.

Many developing countries are rich in biodiversity. The Svalbard vault will be an extra security for plant diversity.

Will GMO-seeds be stored at the SGSV?
Import and storage of GMO seeds according to Norwegian legislation will require advance approval. Certain other criteria will apply to "sealed internal use" for research purposes and indoor storage of GMO, for example with regard to the risk of spreading GMO.

Norwegian genetechnology legislation was formulated before the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV) was set up, and therefore fails to take into account the vault's special status, or the low risk related to handling seeds in sealed packaging. Until changes can be made to the rules or exemptions can be provided from them, long-term storage of GMO seeds in the SGSV will not be approved.

If it becomes apparent at a later date that modification of the facilities to include GMO seeds can be necessary in order to comply with the purpose of the vault, Norway will revise its policy and rules, and consider ways to upgrade the facility. As part of this process, the Norwegian authorities will attach great importance to the recommendations of the international council being established to advise on policy for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is being constructed as a cavern excavated into the permafrost just outside of Longyearbyen. The SGS is intended to ensure genetic variety for the world's food plants by storing duplicates of seed collections from gene banks all over the world, and will have storage capacity for over four million different ssamples. If seed samples are lost somewhere in the world due to natural disasters, wars or resource shortages, they may be re-established with seeds from Svalbard.

Last updated: 21.05.2012
Ministry of Agriculture

Facts

In 1949 the Chinese farmers grew more than 10 000 types of wheat. Twenty years later the number of wheat varieties in use where reduced to 1000