This week will mark the first time in 2021 when the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opens to deposit crop seeds to its existing collection. It’s bound to be a ‘sweet’ feeling as watermelon, strawberry and pumpkin seeds will be deposited at the Vault along with many other crop seed varieties from genebanks in Africa, Europe and South Asia.
The Seed Vault was last opened for a deposit in October 2020. The decision to add watermelon, strawberry and pumpkin seeds also coincides with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s International Year of Fruits and Vegetables.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault has often been dubbed as the “doomsday” vault. It is a secure facility located inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago. Svalbard is a geologically stable area where humidity levels are also low. The Seed Vault is located well above sea level and protected from flooding. Apart from artificial cooling systems, the permafrost also offers natural freezing, providing a cost-effective and fail-safe method to conserve seeds.
Norway established and owns the Seed Vault, which is managed and operated through a partnership between the Norwegian ministry of agriculture and food, the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, also known as NordGen, and the international organization Crop Trust.
In total, five genebanks are depositing almost 6,500 seed samples at the Seed Vault this week: AfricaRice in Côte d’Ivoire, ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in India, the Julius Kühn-Institute (JKI) in Germany, SADC Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Zambia and the national genebank in Mali.
According to a blog post on the Crop Trust website, the Institute for Breeding Research on Fruit Crops, part of JKI in Germany, will be depositing a package of 500 Fragaria vesca (woodland or wild strawberry) seeds. “We welcome the deposits of new seeds of fruits, vegetables and other important food crops," Olaug Bollestad, Norwegian minister for agriculture and food, said in a press release. "This diversity contributes to nutritious food and constitutes the building blocks for adapting food production to climate change. This deposit is thus a small, but significant step on our pathway to reach the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Today, the Seed Vault houses more than one million seed samples in total. These have been deposited by almost 90 genebanks over the past 13 years. Opened in 2008, the Seed Vault in Svalbard acts as a backup for genebanks around the world -- to conserve duplicates of their crop diversity.
In a worst-case scenario, if a genebank collection gets destroyed or becomes inaccessible due to war or extreme weather events, or if its collection is damaged due to a lack of sufficient funding or accident, the duplicate seeds will still be available for the depositor to retrieve from the Seed Vault and start afresh. Despite the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, the Seed Vault is scheduled to open two more times this year, in May and again in October.
In a 2018 interview with Mint, Åsmund Asdal, the Seed Vault’s coordinator, had explained why it is critical to preserve new varieties of crops and seeds. “Seeds do not live forever. Gene banks regularly monitor the viability of their seeds… We need these varieties because of climate change, increasing food production, dry and wet climate conditions, new plant diseases, and so on,” said Asdal, who described the Seed Vault in Svalbard as “quite a simple project in a big international system for improving agriculture.”