Introducing an initiative that strives to preserve genetic resources by establishing seed banks to enhance seed diversity and contribute to crop biodiversity
The Global Seed Vault is a safety back-up facility for genetic resources whose operations are funded and managed in collaboration between the Norwegian Government, the Nordic Gene Bank (NordGen), and the Crop Trust. Unlike other seed banks around the world that circulate and exchange their material with end-users such as farmers and breeders, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault operates as a backup for the network of depositing seed banks that join the initiative. As we have seen on occasions in the recent past, seed banks can be threatened by many factors – funding uncertainties, equipment failures, natural disasters, or armed conflicts. If the material in one of these facilities were lost or damaged, it would be lost forever, as some of these varieties can no longer be found in the wild. Such a loss would deprive future generations of a wide range of options for breeding improved varieties of our food crops.
Hannes Dempewolf: We need to distinguish between two different modes of accessing genetic resources. Material from the original seed banks, the ones we provide backup for, is generally used on a daily basis to breed new varieties or distributed for direct use in farmer’s fields. Take as an example the CGIAR, an international network of research-for-agricultural-development centers operating mostly in developing countries: these centers house eleven seeds banks that together constitute the largest collection of seeds in the world. They distribute about 90,000 seed samples a year across the globe.
In general, there is a lot of material flowing out of seeds banks and actively contributing to crop biodiversity conservation around the world. When it comes to accessing material from the Global Seed Vault, instead, that would only ever happen if the original material was lost or damaged – and only the depositing seed bank would be allowed to retrieve it. So far, it has happened only once with the International Center for Agriculture in Dry Areas (ICARDA), one of the CGIAR seed banks, which was based in Aleppo and could no longer operate due to the Syrian conflict. In 2017, they had to re-establish the facility in Morocco and Lebanon. The only way they were able to do so was by withdrawing their back up material – around 110,000 accessions – from Svalbard, regrowing them on-site, and backing them up again. It is a lengthy process that is still not completed.
Riccardo Badano: Is it accurate to say that the genetic resources stored in the vault are related to food production?
Indeed, for seeds to be eligible, they have to be useful in the context of food production and agricultural activities. That means crops but also wild species that can potentially transfer helpful genetic traits to their domesticated cousins through breeding. For instance: those that can improve climate adaptation of existing crops. What the Svalbard Global Seed Vault does not provide is a way to store those crops that are not storable as seeds, like bananas, coffee, oranges, or some tree species, among the many.
RB: There are limitations regarding what can be stored within the vault, as it is the case of the genetically modified organism, whose importation is prohibited by Norwegian law. Do these restrictions apply for patented seeds as well?
HD: That is correct. If something is patented, and as a result, not available for research and breeding, it could not be deposited in the vault. Such accessions are not allowed under the depositor agreement every seed bank has to sign with the Government of Norway: article 3.1c clearly states that all material has to be available to other controlled legal persons in a manner that facilitates access for conservation and sustainable use in compliance with national laws and applicable international treaties.
This clause disqualifies seeds whose reproduction or circulation is protected by patents that prohibit further sharing. For the same reason, there are few deposits from the private sector: companies would be required to make the original samples available, and this is something they are often not keen to do.
RB: Can you tell us about the international framework that led to the establishment of this joint venture?
HD: Since the 1970s, the international community has been discussing a global effort for the conservation and enhancement of seed diversity. This discourse has mainly taken place under the umbrella of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). In 1981, FAO member countries adopted the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, the first internationally negotiated document to recognize seeds and genetic resources as a global common good that the world governments have the responsibility to safeguard.
Based on this Voluntary Undertaking, a legally binding International Treaty (the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture) came into force in 2004. It provides with a legal framework the work of the Crop Trust and other organizations involved in the operations of the Global Seed Vault.
RB: As for the building itself, what is the role it plays in the physical conservation of the specimens?
HD: The facility is composed of a big entrance portal, the only element visible in the arctic landscape, through which you access a narrow tunnel that goes four hundred feet down into the mountain. After you exit the tunnel, you reach one big chamber through which it is possible to access the three storage chambers – the core of the Global Seed Vault – that together have the capacity to safeguard 4.5 million seed samples. At the moment, we count more than one million samples, amounting to more than six thousand species from 88 different seed banks.
The vault itself is hewn into a virgin rock formation called Platåberget, on the island of Spitsbergen, the largest of the Svalbard archipelago, which is situated in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, well above the Arctic Circle. The site was selected so that the harsh environment would keep the temperature inside the rock around -4°C over the year. On top of that, an artificial cooling system (still coal-powered, but most likely that will change in the near future) keeps the temperature in the chambers down at -18°C, which is the optimal storage temperature for seed samples, according to international standards. The Seed Vault is only opened for deposits three to four times a year. Although there is no permanent staff running the operations within the vault, the facility is in the proximity of the town of Longyearbyen, the administrative center of Svalbard, from where the operations of the vault are monitored.
The location was selected, bearing in mind any possible threats to the collection: the site is situated in a geologically stable area, with almost no seismic activity, the entrance of the seed vault itself is located way above any worst-case-scenario concerning sea level rise. The climate is changing and in the Arctic is doing so faster than anywhere else on Earth: it has already impacted the communities in Svalbard but, luckily, not the activity of the bank so far. There has only been a minor issue a few years ago when water leaked into the entrance tunnel around the point it intersects with the permafrost layer – the top layer of frozen soil. In some locations, the permafrost has not re-established itself as expected around the entrance tunnel after the original construction was completed. The seed collection was not threatened by the water leak: the seeds are stored far below the permafrost, and the freezing temperatures in the storage chambers would prevent any water-related damage anyway.
When the general public considers biodiversity conservation often the fact that everything we eat is an integral part of it, what we can call edible biodiversity, is underestimated. This aspect of diversity is a significant foundation of agriculture and our food systems, and sometimes the general public is not fully aware of the staggering amount of diversity that has already disappeared from our food system. The different varieties of tomatoes that our grandparents used to grow that would have been lost if it was not for seeds banks or continuous cultivation in some small farms and gardens: that is an amount of edible biodiversity that almost disappeared from our food systems. Today, we protect and use biodiversity by supporting farmers that still grow and cultivate endangered varieties of crops and, in parallel, by safeguarding the markets for their products.
RB: Although this is probably not the focus of Crop Trust, you remark the need for effective communication able to engage the general public on the matters of food security and edible biodiversity conservation.
HD: At the Crop Trust, we focus on the community of conservationists and users of genetic resources, such as researchers, breeders, or farmers. We support seed banks in systematically implementing information management systems so that to every seed accession, there is a comprehensive dataset attached, which we refer to as passport information. One component, as envisioned by the FAO’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, is a Global Information System available to all researchers, breeders, and farmers around the world. The Crop Trust manages a component of this envisioned Global Information System called Genesys. It gathers in single platform information on around four million genebank accessions, more than half of the estimated total number in the world.
RB: One way to look at seeds is, of course, as genetic resources, at the same time we can think of them as cultural artefacts – objects or entities that testify of the interplay between human and non-human actors.
HD: Although our primary focus is on seed banks, we understand and appreciate the role farming communities play in safeguarding diversity. The seed vault is available to anyone who wants to use it, given the conditions I mentioned before. The reality is that many who hold seed collections that are not recognized as formal seed banks are not aware that this facility is, in fact, available to them. We are working to improve this aspect, for example, facilitating indigenous communities in accessing and using the Global Seed Vault, as was the case with the deposit we received last February from the Cherokee Nation. They banked different varieties of corn, bean, and squash seeds. There is a central role these seeds have in their history and culture.
The Cherokee Nation deposit, for example, was first prompted by an article in the New York Times. When Peruvian Quechua-speaking communities who live in the Andes deposited their seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, they did so through the international seed bank of the Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP), another CGIAR research center that we support, which is based in Lima, Peru.
You see, there are different avenues. At the Crop Trust, we are working to be flexible and facilitate agreements among all parties involved. The aim is to encourage more and more communities and other types of collection holders to use the Seed Vault to safeguard some of their bio-cultural heritage.
The Crop Trust
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