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A milestone for seed conservation

Over 1m unique crop varieties now held in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the largest collection of crop biodiversity in the world
A milestone for seed conservation

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault marked its 10th anniversary this week (26 Feb) by receiving shipments of over 70,000 crop varieties at the storage facility in Norway.

The deposits will take the total number of unique crop varieties received by the Seed Vault in the last decade to over 1 million.

A ‘remarkable conservation effort’

Depositors from seed banks around the world braved sub-zero temperatures to deliver duplicate seeds of vital staples like rice, wheat and maize to the Vault, which is housed deep inside a frozen mountain on the Svalbard archipelago.

Other important crops like black-eyed pea (cowpea), a major protein source in Africa and South Asia, were deposited, along with samples of sorghum, pearl millet and pigeon pea.

Several lesser-known crops also made the journey to the Vault. These include Bambara groundnut, which is being developed as a drought tolerant crop in parts of Africa, and the unusually named Estonian onion potato, which joined the seeds of varieties of beans unique to the eastern European country.

The event marked the largest number of institutions (23) depositing seeds at one time.

‘The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is an iconic reminder of the remarkable conservation effort that is taking place every day, around the world and around the clock – an effort to conserve the seeds of our food crops.

‘Safeguarding such a huge range of seeds means scientists will have the best chance of developing nutritious and climate-resilient crops that can ensure future generations don’t just survive, but thrive.’

Executive director of the Crop Trust

A backup for the world’s seeds

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which first opened its doors in February 2008, is the largest collection of crop biodiversity in the world, and serves as a backup facility for the world’s seed banks.

Many seed banks – while engaged in the vitally important work of seed conservation and use – suffer from inadequate funding, political instability or the risk of catastrophic natural disasters. The Vault provides secure storage for their seeds.

Located in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the Seed Vault is owned by the Norwegian government and operated under a three-party agreement between the Norwegian government, NordGen and the Crop Trust.

A major milestone

The vault received deposits of over 300,000 different kinds of seed in its first year and deliveries have continued several times a year ever since, from countries far and wide including Australia, Burundi, Colombia, Germany, India, Japan, North Korea, Russia, USA and many others.

‘The 10th anniversary is a major milestone for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault’, said Jon Georg Dale, Minister of Agriculture for the Norwegian government, which jointly runs the facility with the Crop Trust and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen).

‘It comes at a time when agriculture is facing multiple challenges from extreme weather and the demands of a world population expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050’, Jon Georg Dale added. ‘This means it is more important than ever to ensure that seeds – the foundation of our food supply and the future of our agriculture – are safely conserved.’

Deposits and withdrawals

Depositors to the Seed Vault still own the samples that they deposit and only they can retrieve them if required.

Over the decade-long history of the Vault, only one institution has withdrawn seeds – the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), whose own seed bank in Syria became unable to operate due to civil conflict.

In 2015 and 2017, ICARDA requested some of its deposits of wheat, lentil, chickpea and other crops in order to re-establish its research and conservation work at sites in Lebanon and Morocco.

It has since managed to duplicate and return thousands of these varieties to Svalbard. For that reason, the total number of unique crop varieties in the Seed Vault currently stands at 967,216. The total ever received by the Seed Vault – excluding withdrawals – is 1,059,646.

In 2017, work began on the outer part of the Seed Vault’s access tunnel to make it watertight, and prepare it for the likelihood of a warmer, wetter future. The seeds continue to be secure, and the Seed Vault remains the safest seed storage facility in the world.

Click here to read about Katie Hill’s visit to Navdanya, Dr Vandana Shiva’s organic farm and seed bank in the lower Himalaya.

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