The world has lost a tremendous amount of crop diversity, due to the way we do agriculture these days, due to urbanization, due to climate change.
The Crop Trust was founded in 2004 to make sure that we don’t do more harm, that we safeguard what is left, and that we make that diversity available forever because it is the basis for our food. Crop diversity will be required when we want to breed crops that can adapt to higher temperatures and higher salinity in the soil, that can fight a new pest or a new disease, give higher nutritional value—or just taste better, for that matter.
There are millions of crops out there in the world, and many of these varieties are stored in more than 1,700 collections around the globe. And the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway’s northernmost inhabited island, is meant to be the backup for all these collections. There are nearly one million samples in the vault today. Our dream is to have one copy of each unique variety of seed, so that if something happens, something goes wrong in the real world, we can go to Svalbard and retrieve the variety that is lost.
In 2015, the first withdrawal from the seed bank was made. There was a major research center in Aleppo, Syria, that could not continue its work because of the war there. The organization that ran the center decided to set up alternative operations in Morocco and Lebanon. So they withdrew samples from us that had previously been sent here for safekeeping.
Svalbard was chosen because it’s cold up there. (It used to be covered in permafrost, but the permafrost hasn’t come back as we had expected. It’s not as stable as it used to be because of climate change.) When you go through the front door, you open one more door, you open a third door, you open a fourth door, and then you have walked 400 feet and you are inside the mountain. Inside, the temperature is 23 degrees, and that will continue for hundreds of years. So it’s much easier to start there and with refrigeration cool it down to minus 4 degrees, the ideal temperature for storing seeds long-term. (Some crops, like wheat, can still be viable after a thousand years if properly stored.)
In addition to that, Svalbard is considered to be one of the safest places in the world. There are no earthquakes or volcanoes up there. And it’s an awfully difficult place to get to. It’s a long boat ride from any mainland. When you fly in, the only thing you see is ice, ice, ice, and ice. There are 12,000 funny-looking reindeer, 3,500 polar bears, and only 2,000 people up there. It’s a very small, transparent local community, so the residents would know if there were people around that didn’t have good intentions. We also shouldn’t hide that the vault was established thanks to the generosity of the Norwegian government, which paid for the construction at a cost of $9 million.
Scandinavians have long been sensitive to food security. It’s a harsh climate in these countries, and they are to a large extent dependent on imported food. So quite simply, they can’t feed themselves. And I think that has triggered the understanding that government ought to take more responsibility, and they do.
It is possible to safeguard the diversity of what is left of these crops. It’s not rocket science. It requires money and political will. But it can be done.