Svalbard’s ‘doomsday’ vault is set to welcome its 1 millionth crop seed variety

Seeds from India, Mali, Peru, the Cherokee Nation and the private residence of Britain's Prince Charles will bring the Arctic vault over the 1 million mark.

By Gwladys Fouche, Reuters - February 25, 2020
A guard stands watch outside the Global Seed Vault before the opening ceremony in Longyearbyen in the Arctic, February 26, 2008. (Bob Strong / Reuters File Photo)

OSLO — A vault in the Arctic built to preserve seeds for rice, wheat and other food staples will contain 1 million varieties with the addition on Tuesday of specimens grown by the Cherokee Nation and the estate of Britain’s Prince Charles.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built in 2008, was designed as a storage facility to protect vital crop seeds against the worst cataclysms of nuclear war or disease and safeguard global food supplies.

Dubbed the “doomsday vault,” the facility is built into a mountainside on the island of Spitsbergen in the Norwegian Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, and is only opened a few times a year in order to preserve the seeds inside.

On Tuesday, 30 gene banks were set to deposit seeds, including from India, Mali, Peru and the Cherokee Nation in the United States, which will bank samples of maize, beans and squash.

The Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in Britain will bank seeds harvested from the meadows of Prince Charles’ private residence, Highgrove, including from grass species, clovers and broad-leaved flowering herbs.

The vault also serves as a backup for plant breeders to develop new varieties of crops. The world once cultivated around 7,000 different plants but experts say we now get about 60 percent of our calories from three main crops — maize, wheat and rice — making food supplies vulnerable if climate change causes harvests to fail.

Television crews stand outside the Global Seed Vault before the opening ceremony in Longyearbyen in the Arctic, February 26, 2008. (Bob Strong / Reuters File Photo)

“The seed vault is the backup in the global system of conservation to secure food security on Earth,” Stefan Schmitz, executive director of the Crop Trust, the Bonn-based organization which manages the vault, told Reuters.

“We need to preserve this biodiversity, this crop diversity, to provide healthy diets and nutritious foods, and for providing farmers, especially smallholders, with sustainable livelihoods so that they can adapt to new conditions.”

Already, one in nine people go to bed hungry globally, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme, and scientists have predicted that erratic weather patterns could reduce both the quality and the quantity of food available.

The vault was last opened in October. With Tuesday’s deposit, it will contain 1 million different kinds of seeds, from almost all nations.

In 2015, researchers made a first withdrawal from the vault after Syria’s civil war damaged a seed bank near the city of Aleppo. The seeds were grown and re-deposited at the Svalbard vault in 2017.

In October, Norway completed an $11 million, year-long upgrade of the vault, which was built at Svalbard because the Arctic’s cold climate means its contents will stay cool even if the power fails. But even the doomsday vault has suffered effects likely driven by climate change: An unexpected thaw of permafrost when it first opened let in water to the tunnel entrance of the vault building — although no seeds were damaged.

Additional reporting by Thin Lei Win in Rome.