In an Arctic archipelago in Norway, where polar bears outnumber people two to one, and 10,000 reindeer outnumber everything, sits Svalbard, home of the Global Seed Vault. Its unusual setting, far away from civilization, makes it the perfect place to back up precious seeds from the 1,700 seed banks from around the world. More than 900,000 varieties—representing mankind’s future food locker—are housed there, including more than 3,000 samples from Seed Savers Exchange.
The story of Svalbard and how it came to be is elegantly captured in Cary Fowler’s book Seeds on Ice. Intended as an insurance policy for the future diversity of agriculture, Svalbard was built into the side of a mountain by the Norwegian government and serves as a testament to the ingenuity of man to preserve the future of global agriculture.
Fowler was front and center when the germ of an idea for the seed vault was tossed around in 2003, when construction began in 2005, and again when the first seeds arrived three years later. The former executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and board member of Seed Savers Exchange, considers the book a guided tour of the seed vault.
“I’ve been lucky to have known and worked with so many wonderful people who in pursuing their own dream have had the effect of making me look pretty good,” Fowler said in an email. “With Seeds on Ice, it was my intention to list everyone I could find who had even worked for an hour on the construction crew or otherwise helped in any way to establish the Seed Vault.”
At Svalbard, every deposit of seed belongs to the depositor, who entrusts the seed to the care of the Global Seed Vault and may request its return at any time. Intended as a hedge against the loss of diversity, Svalbard has already proved its worth: Backup seed was sent to the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) when its Aleppo, Syria-based operation had to be abandoned due to conflict and moved to Lebanon and Morocco.
Seeds on Ice, which tells the story of how Svalbard came to be, who helped build it, and how it serves the world, is an enlightening read. It is also wonderfully photographed by Mari Tefre, who documented the construction of Svalbard for the Global Crop Diversity Trust, and Jim Richardson, noted National Geographic photographer. In many ways the book is also a love letter from Fowler—the man at the center of Svalbard’s creation—to the many people from Norway, and elsewhere, who made the Global Seed Vault possible.
How long will seeds last at Svalbard?
At -18 Celsius (0 Fahrenheit) seeds can last hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Extreme cold slows down regeneration of seed to where it can be expected that the viability of that seed will still be good generations from now.
Chart: How many years seeds from a crop type can be expected to last under the conditions at Svalbard.