Creating a Safety Net for Genetic Diversity
[Part 1 of a 2-part article]
On remote Spitsbergen Island, more than 800 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault protects the genetic diversity of the plants humanity needs to survive. The vault preserves more than 930,000 seed samples, donated by 73 countries and research organizations. The seeds, duplicates of samples stored in hundreds of seed banks around the world, provide insurance against the loss of genetic diversity that could occur if seed in those facilities were destroyed.
The samples in the vault include seed developed by DuPont Pioneer. Pioneer regularly deposits seed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of the application process for the U.S. Plant Variety Protection (PVP) system. That seed becomes publicly available after the 20-year PVP protection period expires. When choosing U.S. germplasm resources to deposit in the vault, the USDA selected expired PVP deposits, including seed from Pioneer.
The vault is administered by the Crop Trust, an independent organization dedicated to ensuring the conservation of crop diversity for food security worldwide.
For three weeks each year, representatives from businesses and organizations that support the Svalbard Vault have the opportunity to tour the facility and see the results of their sponsorship. On Feb. 24, Jim Collins, DuPont executive vice president; Krysta Harden, DuPont vice president of Public Policy and Chief Sustainability Officer; Geoff Graham, DuPont Pioneer Research vice president for Global Plant Breeding; and John Duesing, senior research director for IP Asset Protection; flew to Longyearbyen Airport on Spitsbergen to see the vault and meet with representatives from the Crop Trust.
Inside the vault
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault lies nearly 400 feet inside a mountain. The seeds stored there are at just below zero degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, seeds can survive from 10 years to a thousand years depending on the crop.
Protected by sophisticated security systems, the vault holds seeds from more than 4,000 species of food crops. The facility already stores the most diverse collection of food crop seeds in the world, and it is only about 20 percent full.
The Global Seed Vault operates like a safe deposit box. The materials deposited there are owned by the country or organization that deposited them; no one else has access.
The group walks through the tunnel leading to the vault.
The seeds are not meant to be used by farmers or gardeners. Instead, they are duplicate samples that provide a fail-safe supply for other seed banks.
Unfortunately, war, natural disasters, technology failures or human error can damage or destroy seed bank resources. The national seed bank of the Philippines was destroyed by fire in 2012, and facilities in Afghanistan and Iraq were destroyed in recent wars. The Svalbard vault provides insurance against those losses.
Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust and one of the hosts for the tour, shared a compelling example of the importance of the vault. In 2015, the Syrian Civil War compromised the operations, research and seed storage facilities of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Aleppo. In September of that year, with its staff and operations relocated to Lebanon and Morocco, ICARDA reclaimed its seed deposits from the vault in order to regrow and rebuild their active seed collections. The day before DuPont leaders’ visit, ICARDA representatives deposited seed reproduced from the samples removed 18 months earlier, bringing the process full circle.
A global effort
Safeguarding the precious contents of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is very much a global effort. Seed comes from countries and organizations throughout the world. The island of Spitsbergen is part of an international territory administered by Norway. The vault is managed under an agreement between the Norwegian government, the Crop Diversity Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center.
“Seeing seed from all over the world stored in the vault illustrates that there are no borders when it comes to global biodiversity,” said Collins.
“Standing in the vault, surrounded by samples of different crops and varieties, it was interesting to think about where all the samples came from,” added Graham. “Despite everything going on around the world, there is an understanding of the need to preserve this material for our future.”
The DuPont leaders who toured the vault found the experience to be an inspiring one as they reflected on the facility’s purpose – serving as a safety net for the genetic diversity needed to ensure food security for the world’s growing population.
“Visiting the Global Seed Vault helped me to better understand the connection of our seed business to the rest of the world, and the role we play in protecting and preserving seeds for future generations,” said Harden. “The value and significance of our work has never meant as much to me as it does now.”
For more information about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, including an interactive online tour of the facility, visit the Crop Trust’s website.