© THE CROP TRUST
November 2019 − Exploring Life
The threat of environmental disasters and wars surrounds us, and crop plants disappear. Seed banks promise a solution – a backup for eternity?
The salvation of humanity resembles an ancient wartime bunker. On its roof, glass ornaments glisten in the night. Carved deep into the snow-covered Platåberget, the entrance to the concrete monstrosity emerges from the permafrost of the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen, with the icy polar sea below. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located on the 78th parallel; approximately 1,300 kilometers from the North Pole. This frosty vault harbors seeds from more than 984,000 crop plants and their wild relatives – more than anywhere else in the world. Tightly packed in aluminum bags and crates and loaded onto rolling containers, the seeds are pushed deep into the vault by blue-helmeted workers.
Collecting seeds is not unusual. All over the world, seed banks shelter plant seeds – mostly in locations much less glamorous. Since 2008, the icy vault has served as a common backup. According to the Global Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, Crop Trust for short, its location makes the North Pole bunker particularly safe: the seeds are meant to survive not only a refrigeration breakdown, but also earthquakes, climate change, wars, fallout and epidemics. Norway seems ideal: it is peaceful, and it does not operate nuclear power plants. The demilitarized zone of Spitsbergen is located at the northernmost place on earth that is accessible via commercial aircraft.
Samples from around the world
As a UN organization, the Crop Trust manages the backup of the most critical of the world’s roughly 1,750 seed banks. The seemingly apocalyptic project is, in fact, visionary: it does not require a global catastrophe – even today, industrial monoculture causes the loss of crop varieties. The stores are meant to secure the rehabilitation of agriculture. At -18 ºC, the North Pole vault harbors mainly varieties of grain, rice and corn on ceiling-high shelves. Also, seeds from potatoes and vegetables such as tomatoes and beans are stored here to secure food for humans in the event of a crisis. Research institutes are the main suppliers of samples that are sent to northern Norway: bananas from Belgium, potatoes from Peru, and rice from the Philippines.
The idea has its limitations: stored in permafrost, the seeds will not retain their ability to germinate forever. Whereas peas are estimated to remain viable for more than 10,000 years, sunflowers and radishes lose their germination capacity in as little as 55 to 80 years. For this reason, samples must be continually replaced. “Certain species cannot be frozen at all”, explains Elke Zippel. The botanist, head of the Dahlem Seed Bank of the Botanical Garden in Berlin, is dedicated to the protection of wild plants. “The ability of a seed to tolerate dry conditions is crucial. If the water content is too high, ice crystals may destroy the tissue during freezing”, says Zippel. Dehydrating small seeds of cruciferous plants such as Brussels sprouts and turnips is easy; large seeds from mangoes and avocadoes, however, would dry out.
Wild plants, too, are at risk of extinction. Many regions have witnessed the loss of varieties, among them species of gentian. Every ten years, the scientists in Berlin test the state of their samples and, if necessary, establish fresh cultures. Is it worth the effort? “We have no choice; species die out due to changes in land use, due to nutrient influx, through the use of pesticides and through overbuilding”, says Zippel. “We may be able to freeze seed, but we cannot freeze entire ecosystems.” Protection of natural habitats should therefore take priority.
Syrian seeds lost
It seems ironic that the icy vault experienced the very catastrophe that it was expected to withstand: global warming. The Arctic is melting. In May 2017, melt water flooded the 100 meter long access tunnel and seeped through the walls. Exceptionally high temperatures led to the melting of the permafrost. According to the Crop Trust, the seed samples were not in any danger, and the entrance has since been reinforced.
Withdrawals have already been made from the bank in the not-so-permanent frost. Fighting in Syria cut off the Aleppo Seed Bank from the outside world. Farmers, growers and researchers ran out of seed. Fortunately, staff had managed to ship samples to Norway even in times of conflict. In 2015, the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Beirut ordered a substantial portion of the crates filled with chick peas, lentils and wheat back from Spitsbergen. Seed banks work best as parts of a network. They are already standing the test of time.
The Crop Trust finances and supports a global network of seed banks. Since many of these are not safe from disaster, they send duplicates of their samples to Spitzbergen – the icy vault thus serves as a second backup. Two-thirds of its stock originates from research centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). In 1984, the Nordic Gene Bank (today: NordGen) opened their first storage area in the former coal mine. The ice vault has existed in its present state since 2008: it accommodates 4.5 million samples of species, each containing 500 seeds – resulting in a total capacity
of 2.25 billion. At this time, 984,000 samples rest on the shelves at -18 ºC. The
majority of stored samples comprise wheat and rice (150,000 samples each), barley (80,000 samples) and millet (50,000 samples).