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.
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.
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.