You may have read about the “Doomsday Vault,” which stores seeds from all over the world. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault or “Doomsday Vault” was built in Norway in 2008. It currently contains more than 850,000 seed samples from all over the world. Its purpose is to safeguard the world’s future food supply in case of a worldwide catastrophe like nuclear war or disease. There are multiple seed banks scattered around the world. The purpose of the Svalbard Bank is to store backup samples from all of them.
Regional and national seed banks are vulnerable to loss from accidents, mis-management, equipment failure, natural disasters, and war. The seed bank in the Philippines was destroyed by flood and fire, and the seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan have been lost.
The Svalbard Vault is dug deep into the permafrost of a remote Norwegian island. It is cooled even further to -0.4*F to preserve the seeds indefinitely. The vault is built to hold 4.5 million seed samples, many times more than the 1.8 million agricultural crops thought to exist.
Countries may make “deposits” of seeds at no charge. Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust cover all of the vault’s operating costs. Funding for the Diversity Trust comes from many different organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as from governments worldwide.
The seed vault operates much like a safety deposit box at a bank. The seeds are stored and protected at the vault, but they belong to the depositors, and can be withdrawn at any time.
Now, less than 10 years after its opening, a withdrawal is being made from the Svalbard Vaults. Agricultural officials from civil war-torn Syria have requested withdrawal of samples they deposited years ago. Their own national seed banks have been damaged in the ongoing conflict, and the withdrawn seeds will replenish those banks.
The seeds were requested by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas. ICARDA moved its headquarters to Beirut from Aleppo, Syria in 2012 because of the war. This organization does research on varieties of barley, wheat and grasses suited to dry areas.
It is unfortunate that a withdrawal from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault had to be made so soon. However, it demonstrates the prudence and necessity of not only national and regional seed banks, but also the necessity of a global backup seed bank in protecting our food source. In case of true global disaster, a seed bank will be the most valuable resource humanity has.