The Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Norwegian: Svalbard globale frøhvelv) is a secure seedbank located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near the town of Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1,300 kilometres (810 mi) from the North Pole. It was started by conservationist Cary Fowler in association with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and functions to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds in an underground cavern. The seeds are duplicate samples, or "spare" copies, of seeds held in gene banks worldwide. The seed vault is an attempt to provide insurance against the loss of seeds in genebanks, as well as a refuge for seeds in the case of large-scale regional or global crises. The seed vault is managed under terms spelled out in a tripartite agreement between the Norwegian government, the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) and the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen).
Construction of the seed vault, which cost approximately NOK 45 million (US$9 million), was funded entirely by the Government of Norway. Storage of seeds in the seed vault is free-of-charge. Operational costs will be paid by Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust. Primary funding for the Trust comes from organisations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and from various governments worldwide.
The Nordic Gene Bank (NGB) has stored a backup of Nordic plant germplasm as frozen seeds in an abandoned coal mine at Svalbard since 1984. The NGB has deposited more than 10,000 seed samples of more than 2,000 cultivars of 300 different species over the years. In addition, seed samples from the Southern African Development Community have been safely duplicated with the Nordic collection for some years. Both the Nordic and African collections have been transferred to the new Svalbard Global Seed Vault facility. Since 1 January 2008, the Nordic Gene Bank is an integrated part of NordGen.
The seedbank is constructed 120 metres (390 ft) inside a sandstone mountain at Svalbard on Spitsbergen Island. The bank employs a number of robust security systems. Seeds are packaged in special four-ply packets and heat sealed to exclude moisture. The facility is managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, though there are no permanent staff on-site.
Spitsbergen was considered ideal due to its lack of tectonic activity and its permafrost, which will aid preservation. The location 130 metres (430 ft) above sea level will ensure that the site remains dry even if the icecaps melt. Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration units that further cool the seeds to the internationally recommended standard −18 °C (0 °F). Even if the equipment fails, at least several weeks will elapse before the temperature rises to the −3 °C (27 °F) of the surrounding sandstone bedrock.
Prior to construction, a feasibility study determined that the vault could preserve seeds from most major food crops for hundreds of years. Some seeds, including those of important grains, could survive far longer, possibly thousands of years.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened officially on 26 February 2008. Approximately 1.5 million distinct seed samples of agricultural crops are thought to exist. The variety and volume of seeds stored will depend on the number of countries participating – the facility has a capacity to conserve 4.5 million. The first seeds arrived in January 2008. Five percent of the seeds in the vault, about 18,000 samples with 500 seeds each, come from the Centre for Genetic Resources of the Netherlands (CGN), part of Wageningen University, Netherlands.
Running the length of the building's flat roof and down the front face to the doors of the building's concrete entry is a work of art that marks the location of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault from a great distance. In Norway, government-funded construction projects exceeding a certain cost are required to include some kind of art work. KORO, the Norwegian State's agency overseeing art in public spaces, engaged the Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne to make a lighting installation. The piece highlights the importance of light, and the qualities of light, in the Arctic. The roof and vault entrance are filled with highly reflective stainless steel, mirrors, and prisms. The installation acts as a beacon, reflecting polar light in the summer months, while in the winter, a network of 200 fibre-optic cables gives the piece a muted greenish-turquoise and white light.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault's mission is to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional genebanks. While the popular press has emphasized its possible utility in the event of a major regional or global catastrophe, it will certainly be more frequently accessed when genebanks lose samples due to mismanagement, accident, equipment failures, funding cuts and natural disasters. Such events occur with some regularity. In recent years, some national genebanks have also been destroyed by war and civil strife. There are some 1,400 "crop diversity collections" around the world, but many are in politically unstable or environmentally threatened nations.
The seed samples stored in the seed vault are copies of samples stored in the depositing genebanks. Researchers, plant breeders and other groups wishing to access seed samples cannot do so through the seed vault; instead they must request samples from the depositing genebanks. The samples stored in the genebanks will, in most cases, be accessible in accordance with the terms and conditions of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, approved by 118 countries/parties.
The seed vault functions like a safe deposit box in a bank. The bank owns the building and the depositor owns the contents of his or her box. The Government of Norway owns the facility and the depositing genebanks own the seeds they send. The deposit of samples in Svalbard does not constitute a legal transfer of genetic resources. In genebank terminology this is called a "black box" arrangement. Each depositor signs a Deposit Agreement with NordGen, acting on behalf of Norway. The Agreement makes clear that Norway does not claim ownership over the deposited samples and that ownership remains with the depositor, who has the sole right of access to those materials in the seed vault. No one has access to anyone else's seeds from the seed vault. The database of samples and depositors is maintained by NordGen.
The seeds are stored in four-ply sealed envelopes, then placed into plastic tote containers on metal shelving racks. The storage rooms are kept at −18 °C (0 °F). The low temperature and limited access to oxygen will ensure low metabolic activity and delay seed aging. The permafrost surrounding the facility will help maintain the low temperature of the seeds should the electricity supply fail.
The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT) has played a key role in the planning of the seed vault and is coordinating shipments of seed samples to the Vault in conjunction with the Nordic Genetic Resource Center. The Trust will provide most of the annual operating costs for the facility, and has set aside endowment funds to do so, while the Norwegian government will finance upkeep of the structure itself. With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other donors, the GCDT is assisting selected genebanks in developing countries as well as the international agricultural research centers in packaging and shipping seeds to the seed vault. An International Advisory Council is being established to provide guidance and advice. It will include representatives from the FAO, the CGIAR, the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources and other institutions.
As part of the vault's one year anniversary, more than 90,000 food crop seed samples were placed into storage, bringing the total number of seed samples to 400,000. Among the new seeds includes 32 varieties of potatoes from Ireland's national gene banks and 20,000 new samples from the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. Other seed samples came from Canada and Switzerland, as well as international seed researchers from Colombia, Mexico and Syria. This 4-tonne (3.9-long-ton; 4.4-short-ton) shipment brought the total number of seeds stored in the vault to over 20 million. As of this anniversary, the vault contained samples from approximately one-third of the world's most important food crop varieties. Also part of the anniversary, experts on food production and climate change met for a three-day conference in Longyearbyen.
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