The Svalbard Global Seed Bank, as the name implies, is currently home to over 430,000 species of plants, with room for up to 4.5 million samples. Svalbard naturally provides the perfect environment for storing biological supplies, as it is both very cold and low in humidity. The ambitious project was founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and built into an abandoned mine site. The vault is also used for conferences and events, hosting environmentalists, policy-makers, and government personnel in order to tackle the environmental issues plaguing the world today.
While the project seems like an ambitious intellectual project its nickname as the Doomsday Vault gives rise to the more pessimistic side of seed banks, of which Svalbard is just one. While previous generations feared the apocalypse in the form of nuclear destruction, our generation fears a more biological destruction, a slow break down of order as extreme weather events, floods, and droughts make stable environments scarcer and more valuable. The vault protects against this some-what plausible scenario of future catastrophe. Most people in countries with stable governments fail to realize that these scenarios are already playing out across the world. The Svalbard Vault opened in 2008, and this year the first request has already arrived. A Lebanon-based seed bank that used to be located in Syria has requested that 130 boxes of samples they had previously stored in the vault be given to them as they relocate to a new location in Beirut.
If the Svalbard Vault did not exist there was a possibility that several germlines could have been lost during the ongoing war in Syria. The importance of having a global back up is clear, though it’s not a good sign that it’s resources have been required so soon after its creation. While the preservation of biodiversity is one of its main goals, the preservation of food security, through as many biologically distinct strains of edible plants as possible, is equally important and has been a growing concern. Between violence in countries like Syria, making regular farming and food production activities an impossibility, climate change driving extremes, and monoculture overtaking increasing amounts of farmland, vaults like the one in Svalbard will only become increasingly necessary.
Picture is the illumnated rood of the Svalbard seed bank, Mari Tefre/Global Crop Diversity Trust