Published on August 29th, 2011 | by Sonya Kanelstrand


Keeping the World’s Seeds Safe

Every autumn I collect the seeds from my flowers to keep for next spring. This almost meditative action assures me that unlike where mainstream culture is trying to lead me, I am still sustainable, be it just in replanting the seeds from my last year’s favorite flowers. Most of my friends who have vegetable gardens do the same with their greens.

Diminishing seed varieties

But the truth is that the majority of the population mainly relies on the fruits and vegetables from the grocery store. Due to the vast development of international trade and global markets in the past century people are now using on a daily basis fruits and vegetables from distant lands our ancestors didn’t even know existed. Coming to depend on just a few varieties of greens we have unconsciously neglected thousands of others, leading to their extinction. According to a study by the Rural Advancement Foundation International 93% of the crop varieties in the USA have disappeared over a period of 10 years.

Apart from the devastating role globalization has in diminishing our seeds, the world’s agricultural diversity is at risk every time a disaster strikes, and with a continuous loss of seed varieties we get more and more vulnerable.


Preparing beans for storage

Safe haven for the world’s crop diversity

With all this in mind, in 2008 The Svalbard Global Seed Vault was built aiming to provide a safe place for one of the world’s most important natural resources – our diminishing amounts of seeds. The idea behind it is to offer backup storage for the world’s crop diversity. So now, 3 years later on the distant island of Svalbard, lying way beyond the Polar Circle over 300,000 samples are stored in the Seed Vault, totaling over 150 million seeds deposited by gene banks from all over the world. The Seed Vault has the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples, which is more than the total number of varieties in existence.


Seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault by country of origin after three years of operation

Location of The Global Seed Vault

Svalbard was chosen as the best place for the seed vault not only because of the perfect weather conditions, allowing for almost effortless storage. The arctic permafrost offers natural freezing for the seeds, which is the main prerequisite for long term conservation. In such cool conditions it is easy and cheap to mechanically cool down to -18° Celsius (-0.4° Fahrenheit). The vault is safely located inside a mountain, in a geologically stable area, way above sea level, so it is protected in case of rise of sea level due to global warming. And, any uninvited guests will think twice before they venture to approach the Global Seed Vault because although military action has been prohibited in the region since 1920, the polar bears inhabiting the island are always around and they are definitely not friendly to humans.


Svalbard Global Seed Vault at night

Who can use The Global Seed Vault?

Norway has always been supportive to positive international initiatives, and The Global Seed Vault makes no difference – it is open for free use by any gene bank or seed conservation organization in the world. Then, if any seed varieties get lost in the depositors’ gene banks, they can be retrieved from Svalbard. As the Global Crop Diversity Trust puts it:

“The Seed Vault plays the role of a safety deposit box in a bank. The bank owns the building and the depositor owns the contents of their box. The Norwegian Directorate of Public Construction and Property owns the facility, and the depositing genebanks own the seeds they send.“

Priority for storage is given to the varieties of seeds important for sustainable agriculture and the aim is to safeguard as much of the world’s unique genetic material as possible. No genetically modified seeds are stored in the Seed Vault.

Beans being prepared for shipment to Svalbard Globaul Seed Vault

I know how tough it is to lose your seeds. I remember my grandfather’s devotion to his garden that for years on end produced food for our big family. I remember my appreciation of the tomatoes he used to grow every summer, no others were like his. Until the moment everything got lost in a fire.

On a bigger scale, the loss of a seed sample can mean the extinction of the variety it represents. Each loss of a sample decreases the options to sustainable agriculture worldwide. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the world’s only global seed storage facility. While it does not solve the problem of continued loss of diversity in farmers’ fields, it does provide a backup plan for the gene banks working to conserve seed diversity. Furthermore, in the case of a large-scale regional or even global disaster, the remote and secure location of the Seed Vault gives the seeds representing the world’s agricultural diversity the best chance of survival.

Source: SGSV Data Portal [] accessed on August 20, 2011.

[CC images by: Global Crop Diversity Trust (1, 2, 3), Dag Endersen]

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About the Author

Sonya is a photographer and a creative artist sharing her Scandinavian experiences. Her blog Kanelstrand Organic Living has become the meeting point of a vibrant green community of eco-conscious artists and crafters from around the world. Sonya believes that people and nature can co-exist together in a healthy and inspiring union without harming each other. She implements the knowledge gained from studying Philology and Pedagogy in her approach to sustainable and eco-friendly living.

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