Seeds in the eternal ice

The Global Crop Diver­sity Trust has set itself the goal of preserving the genetic diver­sity of all agri­cul­tural crops. The seeds are stored in a gigantic vault in a moun­tain in Norway. In an inter­view, managing director Stefan Schmitz explains who bene­fits from this.

What is the Crop Trust’s mission?

In almost every country there is a place where people collect, preserve and main­tain the seeds of all crop vari­eties – these are so-called seed banks. We work together with these agen­cies and store backup dupli­cates of these seeds in the vault in Spits­bergen. Think of it like when someone not only backs up their digital work in the cloud, but also stores the data on a very robust hard disk in a bank safe.

Stefan Schmitz is managing director of the inter­na­tional organ­i­sa­tion Global Crop Diver­sity Trust.

Why is it impor­tant to have a seed vault?

We can keep the seeds really safe in the vault and hope that this trea­sure of our culture will not be lost. It is located inside a moun­tain massif and is sealed at a constant -18⁰C. Suppose a war breaks out or a volcano erupts – there would be little or nothing left on the ground in any given area to feed us humans. We have a good stock of seeds in the vault for such cases.

What is the impor­tance of preserving the genetic diver­sity of crops for farmers?

Seed diver­sity is some­thing that humans them­selves have created over the past 12,000 years. Today, there are more than 200,000 wheat vari­eties, over 100,000 rice vari­eties and thou­sands of potato vari­eties world­wide. Ever since agri­cul­ture has existed, man has made use of this diver­sity to cope with changing envi­ron­mental condi­tions. These include the climate, diseases and pests, or simply the loca­tion, which had to change. What man has created to date is an almost infi­nite array of answers to different natural chal­lenges.

Following agri­cul­tural indus­tri­al­i­sa­tion, this diver­sity was less needed. High-yielding vari­eties and stan­dard­ised prod­ucts were and are in demand. After all, this is the basis of our pros­perity and food secu­rity. We know that it is still impor­tant today to be prepared for climate changes or new plant diseases.

Who can provide seeds and who has access to the seeds?

This is usually done through national seed banks. They are the local contact points for seeds that are to be stored long-term, and they sent backup copies to Norway. The owner­ship remains with those who sent the seeds. However, anyone who stores seeds with us must make them avail­able to other researchers and breeders around the world in accor­dance with the Inter­na­tional Seed Treaty. The prin­ciple is this: Free access world­wide to these genetic resources.

There are only two reasons why mate­rial is removed from the vault in Norway: First, if the “orig­i­nals” have been lost at their home country due to fire, war or earth­quakes, and second, if the seed is no longer able to germi­nate.

The contruc­tion extends 120 meters into the moun­tain, only the entrance lies above ground.

The ware­houses, 130 meters above sea level, are protected by steel doors and can with­stand a nuclear war or a plane crash.

How does the seed retain its germi­na­tion capacity?

Every two years or so, we take out a part of the seed sample, sow the seeds in the respec­tive home loca­tion and then see whether they germi­nate. If 95% of the seeds germi­nate, then we assume that the stored seeds are still capable of germi­na­tion. However, if the germi­na­tion capacity decreases, the samples must be replaced. After all, what good are seeds that are biolog­i­cally dead? To ensure that the seed lasts a long time, it must be well dried and vacuum-sealed before storage. It can then keep its germi­na­tion capacity for up to 50 years at -18 degrees Celsius.

What does the seed vault look like inside?

If you want to know what the safe in the moun­tain looks like, you can take a look for your­self here:

Virtual Tour | Explore in 360°

Why are these conserved seeds rele­vant to meet the chal­lenges of climate change?

In prin­ciple, evolu­tion does not occur when a single indi­vidual adapts, but through muta­tion and selec­tion across gener­a­tions. With 20 to 30 different vari­eties, it is highly likely that there will be one that is suit­able for a partic­ular soil. A plant prevails and multi­plies through the prin­ciple of “survival of the fittest”. This makes it all the more impor­tant to preserve 100 vari­eties instead of 20.

It is impor­tant to be prepared for climate changes, new plant diseases or pests.

Stefan Schmitz, Global Crop Diver­sity Trust

What exam­ples of successful co-oper­a­tion with farmers are there?

Morocco, for example, has used the wild rela­tive of durum wheat to culti­vate a type of wheat that can cope very well with drought. In Peru, a new variety of potato has been success­fully bred with wild rela­tives, which is largely resis­tant to late blight. This makes it possible to use fewer pesti­cides.

This year marks the 20th anniver­sary of the seed vault in the Arctic. What will be impor­tant in the future?

I think it’s impor­tant for us humans to gain a broader under­standing of the impor­tance of preserving diver­sity. Fortu­nately, we could already make a start with our inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tion. The place now exists. And so far we only used one thrid of its capacity, we still have room for more vari­eties.

Facts and figures about the seeds on our planet

Seed banks exist all over the world.

1.2 Mio
seed exam­ples are currently in the vault, but there is room for 4.5 Mio.

grain seeds are stored in a single bag.

600 Mio
seeds are currently saferly stored in the vault.