The history of The Vault
The history of Svalbard Global Seed Vault starts as early as 1983. In common with other big projects, it’s been a long and not very easy journey.
Preserving seed from food plants is an absolutely essential part of the work of preserving the world’s biodiversity, adapting to climate change and global warming and thereby ensuring food for the world’s population for the foreseeable future. There are hundreds of gene banks around the world. But some of them are vulnerable to natural disasters, war or the lack of management or finance. The foundation of a global ”central bank” for the world’s seeds (primarily of food plants) has therefore long been an issue.
Nordic Genetic Resource Centre in 1983
The first initiative for the creation of a safety deposit for seeds in permafrost was taken by the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NBG) as early as the early 80s. Svalbard, along with Greenland and the Jotunheim mountains, was assessed as a possible location at an early date. NBG visited Svalbard in 1983 and it was eventually decided to store seeds 300 metres inside a disused mine, mine 3, near Longyearbyen, where there was a permafrost of minus 3-4 degrees.
NBG’s positive experience of Svalbard led to the question of similar safety deposits being taken up by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR) and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and a meeting between the board and the Norwegian authorities was arranged.
In 1989 IBPGR started surveying the relevant alternative sites in Svalbard. Norway offered to take care of the actual construction of the vault, whilst FAO and IBPGR would take care of the administrative operating costs through the creation of a fund based on capital from external donors.
Who ownes the worlds heritage?
In the early 90s there was heated debate between the various member countries of the FAO about patenting and access to genetic resources. Developing countries wished to receive part of the proceeds from the commercial seed industry, since the diversity mainly came from their areas, whilst the commercial seed industry wanted free access to such resources and the opportunity to patent the seeds. This led to a polarised atmosphere with little mutual trust regarding the administration of seed. The lack of international agreements to regulate this area eventually became an obstacle to realising the plans and IBPGR and FAO eventually had to give up looking for donors. Together with the Norwegian authorities they decided to shelve the plans for an international safety deposit for seeds in Svalbard.
The turning point came when FAO’s International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture came into force in 2004. This created a new basis for taking the plans up again. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food took up the challenge. A group of Nordic and international experts under the direction of Noragric at the Norwegian University of Life Scientists (UMB) were appointed to carry out a preliminary study. In September 2004 the group put forward an unambiguously positive report, which concluded that suitable locations were to be found in Svalbard. The report recommended that a chamber should be built inside the mountain. It was also stressed that the storage of seeds should be done in accordance with international gene bank standards, at minus 18 degrees, and that the seeds should be stored by the ”black box” method, that is that only the institution which deposits seeds has right of ownership and disposition over them.
In November 2004 the report was presented at FAO’s Commission for Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The Norwegian idea received a positive response and was perceived by many countries as a most welcome contribution to the international work of preserving the world’s plant genetic resources. Some developing countries also pointed to the earlier positive experience of development collaborations with Nordic countries and the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre in Svalbard.
The Norwegian government took the leading position
Following the FAO meeting Norway began work on financing the construction project. Since the purpose of the seed vault was multilateral, it was natural to pave the way for making this a joint initiative between three ministries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The government backed the initiative and in 2005 an interdepartmental steering group was set up for the project, consisting of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food (LMD), the Ministry of the Environment (MD), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (UD), the Ministry of Justice (JD) and the Consumer and Administration Ministry (FAD). Statsbygg, as constructor, also participated on the steering group as an observer.
Under the chairmanship of the LMD, the steering group discussed various alternatives for the location, organisation, agreement format and operation of the seed vault, as well as working in close cooperation with international experts in relevant fields. Statsbygg was given responsibility for building and running the technical plant. Planning commenced in autumn 2005 and building commenced in May 2007.
The project consists of three chambers, each of which has the capacity to store 1.5 million seed samples. Even though the facility is owned by Norway, it is important to underline that the seed samples which are stored in the vault are indisputably the property of the depositor (whether country, gene bank or institution), which has right of ownership and disposition over them.
Owned by Norway
It is Norway which formally owns the seed vault, with LMD as the responsible authority for Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Nordic Genetic Resource Centre is responsible for scientific operation, whilst Statsbygg operates the technical plant. Construction has cost almost NOK 50 million and has been entirely financed by UD, LMD and MD. The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) has also been brought in as an active partner and will finance a substantial amount of the annual operating costs of the vault. The other operating costs will be financed by the government, through LMD. GCDT is also helping to secure operations by assisting developing countries in the packing and despatch of seed samples to Svalbard.