The island of Spitsbergen in the archipelago of Svalbard, Norway, takes its name from the Dutch words for “jagged peaks”. The stark Svalbard landscape seemed a perfect remore setting to author Philip Pullman for the kingdom of the Panserbjørne (the race of armoured bears) in His Dark Materials. This remoteness and the additional advantages of permafrost and a lack of tectonic activity made it an ideal location to situate the Global Seed Vault. Designed to last for a thousand years and withstand natural and global disasters, the vault consists of a steel compound tunneling 120 metres into the side of a sandstone mountain. It has collected over 740000 seed samples and at some point will have amassed a sample of every seed ever used in human history.
Though commonly referred to by the media as the “doomsday vault”, its original purpose was to counter the slow loss of biodiversity and to help repopulate seed banks all over the world in case of disaster. An example of this was when a fire broke out at the National Plant Genetics Resources Laboratory in the Philippines in January 2012. Damage sustained in the in vitro laboratory led to the loss of hundreds of seed duplicates of banana, taro, sweet potato, and yam. Parts of the collection that were not duplicated at any other location have now been lost forever. Conspiracy theorists, however, see the project as a diabolical plot by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations that have pledged a stake in it to one day control the world’s food sources.
The concept of creating seed banks emerged 30-40 years ago at the end of the Green Revolution, which led to the realization that, as old varieties of seeds were abandoned for hybrids, a significant amount of agricultural biodiversity was being lost. Take India, for example, which had over 100,000 varieties of rice in the 19th century. There are now only a few thousand varieties remaining.
At Svalbard, every country owns the seeds they deposit, and neither the vault authorities not the Norway government can allow access to the seeds without the depositor’s consent. This raised concerns that non-influential collectors would have limited access to the stores. Another concern is that this system has allowed large firms to patent seeds if they have not already been patented.
Another international conservation project is the Millennium Seed Vault in West Sussex. Coordinated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, this is the world’s largest plant conservation project. Its vaults have the capacity to hold 30 packed double-decker buses of grains, which makes it about 100 times bigger than the facility at Svalbard. It works in collaboration with other biodiversity projects and by 2020 would have collected duplicates of 25% of the world’s plant species.