A Task for Eternity

Deep inside a mountain on an island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, more than one million seeds of crops from around the world are stored in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The storage facility thus contains the world’s largest backup collection of seed samples. By establishing the Seed Vault, Norway has taken on a global task that will never be completed. The best way to manage this responsibility is to do so in an eternal perspective.

When preparing a bowl of breakfast cereal or cutting a slice of bread, we usually don’t give thought to where the farmer obtained the oats or wheat seed, or which wheat variety was used to bake our bread. More than 10 thousand years ago, when hunter gatherers gave up their wandering ways, they began saving the seeds of their crops to plant for the next season. Since those days, each generation has added its mark to our crop diversity because of the seeds saved – saved because of the plant’s ability to withstand pests, to grow in tough climates or simply because it tastes good. Through their steadfast efforts, past and present generations of farmers have helped to create the abundance of food plant species and varieties from among which we as consumers can choose today.

The Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food manages the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in cooperation with the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre (NordGen) and Global Crop Diversity Trust. In February 2020, representatives from 28 gene banks from around the world braved -20 ºC weather to deposit new seed samples in the Seed Vault. Wearing identical polar suits that had been borrowed for the occasion, the dignified seed depositors were difficult to tell apart. However, the boxes they carried contained a diversity of different seeds.

Also the Cherokee Nation from the USA sent boxes to Svalbard. Their deposit included seeds of indigenous maize, bean and squash varieties – crops that make up part of the Cherokees’ cultural heritage. The notion that the Cherokee Nation will exist as long as they have access to their traditional plants thus gives the storage of these seeds an added symbolic meaning. Another box contained wild meadow seeds from one of Prince Charles’ estates in western England, including wild carrot, clover and five types of wild orchids. The international gene bank ICRISAT, with headquarters in India, deposited more than 2,800 different types of seeds. From before, ICRISAT already had more than 110,000 accessions in the Global Seed Vault. 

The global community has recognized the importance of genetic diversity for food security by including the conservation of genetic diversity of seeds, cultivated plants and their related wild species as one of the targets in Sustainable Development Goal 2 on Zero Hunger. As co-chairs of the UN Secretary General’s Advocacy Group for the Sustainable Development Goals, Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway and President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana attended the seed deposit ceremony and signed an Arctic Call to Action that urges all governments to step up their efforts to maintain genetic diversity. This is crucial for adapting food production to climate change in a world with limited access to farmland and water.

There are numerous ongoing international efforts in support of these goals, such as the implementation of the International Seed Treaty and the work of FAO’s Commission on Genetic Resources. Norway plays an active role in many of these processes. However, we also have to sweep our own doorstep. In December 2019, I approved Norway’s national strategy for the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources for food and agriculture. The strategy outlines our country’s efforts to maintain this vital genetic diversity, and I will be following this work closely.

Following the extensive technical upgrade that was completed in 2019, I can guarantee that the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is more secure than ever. A new access tunnel and an improved cooling system will ensure the viability of the stored seeds for many years to come. Plant breeding requires continuous and long-term work. Safely stored inside the mountains on Svalbard lie the “building blocks” of our future grain varieties. This is so profound and fascinating that we definitely should reflect upon these seeds the next time we pour ourselves a bowl of cereal or blend flour for a loaf of home-baked bread.