The doomsday vault: the seeds that could save a post-apocalyptic world
Set in an Arctic mountainside, the Svalbard seed bank contains the world’s most prized crops. But a row has erupted over whether this is the best hope of feeding the world after a catastrophe or just an overpriced deep freeze
The Svalbard seed vault, with its fibre-optic display above the entrance, looks like a Bond villain’s lair. Photograph: Mari Tefre/Crop Trust/PA
One Tuesday last winter, in the town nearest to the North Pole, Robert Bjerke turned up for work at his regular hour and looked at the computer monitor on his desk to discover, or so it seemed for a few horrible moments, that the future of human civilisation was in jeopardy.
The morning of 16 December 2014 was relatively mild for winter in Svalbard: -7.6C with moderate winds. The archipelago, which lies in the Arctic ocean, is under Norway’s control, but it is nearly twice as far from Oslo as it is from the North Pole. The main town, Longyearbyen, has many unexpected comforts – tax-free liquor and cigarettes, clothing stores and a cafe with artisan chocolates shaped like polar bears and snowflakes. For Bjerke, who works for the Norwegian government’s property agency, Statsbygg, the cold and isolation were the big attraction when he moved there. Bjerke loved the stillness, and getting out into that big white Arctic wasteland on his snowmobile; so much so that he signed on for a second posting at Svalbard a decade or more after his first stint. But when Bjerke arrived at the office, he was looking forward to spending Christmas with his wife and three children near Oslo.
Statsbygg’s green industrial-style building sits on a hill overlooking the town and the inky blue waters of a fjord. It is a stunning view, but that day, the monitor commanded Bjerke’s attention. In the most important property under his care – the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – the temperature reading was off. The vault was too warm.
Since 2008, the Svalbard seed vault and its guardians have been entrusted by the world’s governments with the safekeeping of the most prized varieties of crops on which human civilisation was raised. That morning, it contained the seeds of nearly 4,000 plant species – more than 720,000 individual plastic-sheathed samples. The site was built to be disaster-proof: 130 metres up the mountain in case of sea-level rise, earthquake resistant, and with a natural insulation of permafrost to ensure the contents were kept frozen for decades to come.
About 60% of Svalbard is glacial. There exist no signs that it was settled by humans before whalers and hunters built small communities along the coast, and coal was found. Nothing grows there apart from wildflowers and grass. But in the early 1980s, Nordic countries began using an abandoned mine shaft, down the hill from the vault, as a safe house for seeds. At a time when industrial-scale farming was perceived as a threat to crop diversity, it was the first experiment in using the permafrost as cold storage for seeds.
When governments began to talk about the danger to crops from climate change, Norway emerged as one of the only places still trusted by both developing and industrialised countries: if there was to be an agreement on founding a safe house for seeds, Norway was the logical place. Governments from Washington to Pyongyang agreed to deposit back-up copies of their most precious plant resources in Svalbard. The late Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai made the first deposit, a box of rice seeds, in February 2008. On arrival at the vault, the seeds were plunged to a temperature of -18C, frozen in time against drought, pestilence, war, disease, and the slow-moving disaster of climate change.
For plant scientists and farmers to breed the traits that can resist higher temperatures and long-term droughts, they need access to genetic diversity. In the event of a cataclysmic crop failure – for example, from a virulent new disease – and if all other samples of a given crop were destroyed, the world could count on the collection at Svalbard to provide the source material for the breeding of new varieties. The explicit promise of the Crop Trust, the international foundation behind the vault, was that the seeds at Svalbard would endure for ever, a lifeline in an uncertain future.
As the man tasked with monitoring the vault, Bjerke feels the weight of that responsibility every day. He constantly checks the temperature, humidity, and other conditions inside the vault. “I have it on the screen all day,” he told me. “Some days I am up there two or three times.”
Take a look around the seed bank in Svalbard which contains the world’s most prized cropsOn 16 December, the temperature was a full 2C above the -18C established as the optimal temperature for ensuring the vault’s contents would remain viable. The surrounding permafrost would keep the temperature from rising above -6C, possibly for months, but malfunctions were never supposed to happen at Svalbard. “I had to find a solution,” he said.
Bjerke got in his truck and drove up the winding road to the vault, scraped aside the ice crystals on the steel door and let himself in. The vault is usually left unmanned. It did not take long to discover the problem: an electrical connection in the refrigeration unit had rusted away – it was covered with golfball-sized chunks of ice. The entire cooling system had shut down. There was no back-up. Bjerke arranged for a technician to fly out the next day from Tromso, about 950km away. By that time the temperature in the vault was up to -14.5C.
The technician arrived, quickly confirmed the diagnosis, and found the part of the cooling system that needed to be replaced. He broke it to Bjerke that the parts, which were made in Italy, would not be available until after Christmas. But the same technician also serviced the local supermarket in Longyearbyen and knew its freezer had a similar component. He arranged to borrow the part, as a temporary fix. “He put that part into this freezer unit, and started it, and it has gone ever since,” Bjerke said.
Seed banks are vulnerable to near-misses and mishaps. That was the whole point of locating a disaster-proof back-up vault at Svalbard. But what if there was a bigger glitch – one that could not be fixed by borrowing a part from the local shop? There is now a growing body of opinion that the world’s faith, in Svalbard and the Crop Trust’s broader mission to create seed banks, is misplaced. Those who have worked with farmers in the field, especially in developing countries, which contain by far the greatest variety of plants, say that diversity cannot be boxed up and saved in a single container – no matter how secure it may be. Crops are always changing, pests and diseases are always adapting, and global warming will bring additional challenges that remain as yet unforeseen. In a perfect world, the solution would be as diverse and dynamic as plant life itself.
* * *
On 26 February, the early morning light turned the snow on the lower slopes of the hills across the fjord from Longyearbyen to a blush pink. The town’s 2,000 residents started to think of spring, although the sun would not shine directly on their homes until 8 March. That morning, three government ministers from Denmark, Norway and Sweden arrived to visit the seed vault. All three had been recently appointed and this was their first visit. They were accompanied by Marie Haga, the executive director of the Crop Trust, who exudes the high wattage personality of her former career as a Green party leader in Norway. By the time their bus pulled up in front of a massive concrete portal jutting out of the snow, the moon was already high, and a fibre-optic display above the entrance lit up in an eerie blue-green glow against the night sky.
It looked like a Bond villain’s lair. The three officials, Norway’s food and agriculture minister, Sylvi Listhaug, Sweden’s countryside minister, Sven-Erik Bucht, and Denmark’s food minister, Dan Jørgensen, zipped into identical blue and black snow suits and stepped over a short steel gangway into a tunnel reinforced with corrugated steel. A rack of crampons hung near the entrance – a precaution against slipping, since leaks in the vault can swiftly turn to ice. The officials, chatting with one another, followed the tunnel downhill for about 120 metres until it opened out into a large white hallway with three sets of double steel doors. Aides clomped behind carrying six large black plastic storage boxes. It was a symbolic occasion – if not a particularly solemn one – marking the first step towards the preservation of natural forests. The boxes contained thousands of seeds collected from Norway spruces and Scots pines that grow in forests in Norway and Finland. One of the samples came from a tree that dated back to 1938. The ministers took the boxes and entered the vault alone. They came out empty-handed a few minutes later, mission complete.
From the inside, the vault looks like a boiler room or warehouse – a forgotten corner of a government building, with its bare walls and utilitarian metal shelving. It was chilled to -18C. At this temperature, fingers cramp almost instantly, and batteries in mobile phones shut down in minutes. In a room the size of a tennis court, 10 rows of warehouse shelving, labelled alphabetically, are loaded with storage boxes, 12 to a shelf. The boxes are stacked as they arrive – North Korea’s rough wooden crates sit next door to deposits from the US, Russia’s contributions on top of Ukraine’s. The critical data about the seeds, their genetic sequencing and traits, is kept off site.
North Korea’s rough wooden crates sit next door to deposits from the US, Russia’s contributions on top of Ukraine’s
With its exalted mission and its eternal ambitions, Haga likens the atmosphere inside the vault to that of a cathedral. After dozens of visits over the years, Cary Fowler, the original director and now senior adviser to the Crop Trust, is more down to earth. “If you look at it, it’s a pretty simple facility. It’s a big tunnel,” he said.
For the last two years, Haga and Fowler have performed as a double act, promoting the Crop Trust’s mission. Haga, a relentlessly upbeat former diplomat and politician, has leveraged her network of contacts to bring in big funders and media attention. Fowler, a soft-spoken scientist from Tennessee, has been the guiding force behind the vault since it was just a germ of an idea. Among the small and closely connected circles of scientists and bureaucrats who are involved with efforts to save crop diversity, there is enormous respect for Fowler. His background is agriculture, and his reputation for working with farmers has helped insulate the Crop Trust against those who suspect the enterprise is part of a secret plot by agribusiness to gain control of heirloom seeds.
“If you ask me: is there anything bad that could happen at Svalbard? Is there any way it can be destroyed? There are no guarantees in this world,” Fowler said. “People say, ‘What if an atomic bomb dropped on top of the mountain?’ And I think that would probably do it.”
The seeds are stored in boxes labelled alphabetically, in a room that looks like a warehouse. Photograph: Images Group/REX_ShutterstockFowler, now 69, came of age in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements; his first job in agriculture was with an NGO. From the 1990s, he was at the centre of efforts to persuade governments and institutions of the importance of protecting crop diversity – and then securing an international agreement that would actually do it. He eventually grew frustrated by the grinding pace of United Nations negotiations and the “poisonous” politics that engulfed them. Instead, he invested his energies in finding a safe place for seeds – a back-up to the seed banks across the developing world, especially those whose collections were endangered by natural disasters or war. When the Crop Trust was founded, Fowler took the helm.
The morning after the ministers’ visit, as the sun came up over the open waters of the fjord, Fowler joined officials from the Nordic Genetic Resource Center (NordGen) at Longyearbyen’s airport to process an even bigger delivery. It comprised 58 boxes, containing 20,000 specimens from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Africa Rice Centre, and Seed Savers Exchange – Fowler’s old organisation – which collects and shares seeds among farmers and other growers. The vault is generally opened up only three times a year for deposits and a limited number of people are allowed inside at one time. Before leaving the airport, Fowler and the NordGen officials ran the boxes through the airport x-ray machine, but security staff were not permitted to open them or look inside. One of the long list of conditions for deposits to the vault stipulates that only the original depositor will ever have access to their contribution. (This stipulation was made in order to satisfy nations that feared big biotech companies would steal their heirloom crops.)
Once at the vault, Fowler and the others slapped barcode labels on the boxes and trooped in to shelve them. With the latest deposits – soybeans, barley, lentils, sorghum and wheat from the USDA and rice from Africa – the vault now contains 865,000 different samples. Most are from a few core species – the focus is on conserving 25 staple crops, such as corn, wheat, rice and legumes. There are nearly 160,000 samples of wheat, and approaching 150,000 samples of rice.
Almost every country in the world has deposited seeds – with some notable exceptions. Japan and China have yet to join in. India remains wary and, Fowler said, there are not enough specimens of green leafy vegetables, which are important staples in Africa. Italy has deposited only two samples, both of the maize used to make polenta, and there has been a drop-off in deposits from developing countries in the last two years, since the vault stopped paying for shipping.
Cary Fowler, the Crop Trust’s senior adviser, at the Svalbard vault. Photograph: Sipa Press/REX_ShutterstockAt the other extreme, there has been the difficult matter of turning away potential deposits because they duplicated existing material. Some national seed banks have had to be told that their prized variety was surplus to requirements, and that a neighbouring country, possibly a rival, had got their deposit in first. Some crops cannot be stored in Svalbard, because they require different conditions. There are no bananas, apples, cassavas or tubers. But by Fowler’s count, the collection covers about half of the world’s known crop diversity, which he estimates at about 1.4m plant varieties. The first chamber is already starting to fill up, with space remaining for 750 boxes, if the trust adds new storage units. Operations are already under way to cool down one of the adjacent chambers. When the steel doors first swung open in February 2008, Fowler would have been happy with 300,000 specimens.
“I did not expect it to go this fast, and I did not think that we would seriously be contemplating the need to open up that second room in the near to medium future,” he said.
* * *
Our ability to feed a global population projected to reach 11 billion by 2100 is under increasing threat from hotter, drier seasons, wild swings from drought to flood, and new diseases. Staples such as wheat and corn are likely to be among the most vulnerable to wild weather, pests and disease. In the 1960s and 1970s farmers began to abandon their traditional seeds and take up new hybridised varieties, which promised bigger yields. Seeds that had been locally developed over centuries disappeared without a trace. China, for example, is believed to have lost 90% of its rice varieties. In the early 1900s, US seed catalogues offered more than 400 varieties of peas – now almost all of the US commercial crop is grown from just two. Many of the wild relatives of crops – species that could possess important traits of resistance to diseases or pests – are also becoming extinct. There are farmers in the American midwest who still remember the fungus that wiped out a quarter of the US corn crop in the 1970s. In the last few months, a devastating mutation of wheat rust has wiped out crops across Africa. These epidemics might have been stopped in the early stages if farmers were planting different varieties of crops.
With the advent of global warming, farmers needed diversity more than ever because it was unclear what varieties would flourish in unfamiliar conditions. But national seed collections, and the 15 international seed banks, have struggled for survival. The Iraqi seed vault, which was located near the notorious prison of Abu Ghraib, was looted and destroyed in the chaos that followed the US invasion of 2003. The guardians of Afghanistan’s seed banks hid some of their samples before fleeing the Taliban takeover in the 1990s, but when they returned they found that the boxes had been looted, and the seeds scattered on the ground. The Philippine gene bank burnt down in 2012, six years after it was wrecked by a flood. Egypt’s catalogue of desert seeds, held in the northern Sinai, was ransacked by looters during the 2011 uprisings. There were some daring rescues: materials from the seed bank in the city of Aleppo were smuggled out in batches by workers and commercial courier services a few weeks before the Syrian war reached its walls. Back-ups to that collection are now shelved at Svalbard.
The greatest destruction, however, has been wrought by budget cuts and mismanagement at seed banks. Those steady losses, generally unrecorded, provided Fowler’s main incentive. “Why did we build it? It wasn’t because some apocalypse was coming,” he said. “It was because we knew gene banks were losing samples, and were losing them for stupid reasons – cuts, equipment failure and human error. Prior to the seed vault we were losing diversity. I am convinced that we were losing at least a variety a day, silently. It was this kind of drip, drip, drip of extinction. We put an end to that – at least for 865,000 varieties.”
In any other gene bank, that would just be the beginning. A collection – though frozen – is a living thing. It has value only so long as the seeds remain viable. Over time, scientists take out samples, put them in petri dishes and see whether they will sprout. If the samples show signs of failure, the seeds would be sown, a new generation raised, and fresh set of samples restored to the bank. These methods are not practical for Svalbard, because the vault is so inaccessible. If seeds must be grown, that will happen elsewhere.
Simply banking seeds in case of a future catastrophe is not enough to save diversity. They have to be kept alive, and examined for potentially useful traits: inbuilt resistance to ancient scourges, pests or droughts. Otherwise, said Phil Pardey, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota, the seed vault is just taking funds that could be used to breed other plants.
“They don’t do any of the collections, none of the testing or re-testing,” he said. “All they are doing is parking those seeds. At the end of the day, it is just one repository.”
The temperature inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is kept at -18C. Photograph: John McConnico/AP* * *
Nori Ignacio stood in a warm hotel lobby near the main shopping street of Longyearbyen, clutching a big grey cardigan around her and glancing anxiously out the window as a ferocious east wind battered pedestrians heading up to town. She had been invited to Svalbard for a preview of the Crop Trust’s plans for the seed vault. Ignacio, who is from the Philippines, is the executive director of South-East Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (Searice), and has worked for years helping farmers cope with natural disaster and climate change. She listened closely as Fowler outlined the Crop Trust strategy for a meeting of its international advisory panel, following up with polite but pointed questions.
“I understand the motive is very noble, but our interest is in how to make this initiative useful for farming communities,” she said a little while later. “The way I see it now, it can be useful in the case of what happened to Syria. In emergency cases like that, you need a place where you can store in safety all the collections you have in your country. But for us in the Philippines …” her voice trailed away.
The battle between two schools of thought about how best to save crop diversity has been fierce. Fowler has been accused of selling out to industry, and subjected to public harangues. To this day, Andrew Kimbrell, the founder of the Center for Food Safety in Washington DC – a former friend of Fowler’s, who is now one of his fiercest critics – cannot utter the word “Svalbard” without putting on a vaguely middle-European accent and letting out a demonic laugh.
The battle between two schools of thought about how best to save crop diversity has been fierce
The dispute centres on whether it is best to save crop diversity by working with communities in the fields, or in institutions. It is pretty clear that it will be extremely difficult to find the funding to do both, so, as much as scientists say they do not like to choose sides, they are forced to do so. The Crop Trust is betting on seed banks – with Svalbard as the ultimate back-up – to provide a haven for the genetic materials that can be retrieved 50 or more years in the future. That strategy has been endorsed by governments, industry, and funding bodies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Since 2004, the Crop Trust has raised more than $410m for the vault and other seed banks. Norway, which paid for the vault, was the biggest donor, committing $45m, followed by America, Britain, and Australia. The Gates Foundation has pledged nearly $30m.
The isolated majesty of the Svalbard seed vault, while a triumph of technology and global cooperation, is sucking up available funding, and yet this highly centralised approach may not in the end be up to the task of helping farmers cope with climate change, 50 or 100 years from now. New research suggests as much as 75% of global crop diversity exists outside the big institutional seed banks and is held instead by some of the world’s most marginal farmers, most of them women.
“We recognise the importance of gene banks. We are not saying they are not important,” said Ignacio. “But for us what they are doing, and what they have got to do, is just collect, and there is not much interaction with the community.” She argues that the best way to save crop diversity would be to just help farmers get on with it.
A few years ago, scientists might have dismissed the idea of recruiting farmers to help save crop diversity. Emile Frison, a former director of Biodiversity International, and an advisor to the Crop Trust. “The goal really was to maintain that material, watching it carefully to make sure it was identical over the years. It was almost like a religion.”It is argued with increasing force that seed banks cannot make up for the practical knowledge of farmers on the ground, or compete with their ingenuity. “The breeding value of these varieties is huge, the existence value is much more amorphous,” Phil Pardey said. “If all we did was stick the material in Svalbard and not use any of it for breeding, it is pretty damn expensive.”
Other scientists have complained that the Svalbard seed vault has soaked up funding that could have been put to better use helping farmers. “The problem with relying entirely on material in gene banks is that it freezes evolution,” said Nigel Maxted, a plant scientist at the University of Birmingham. He has led conservation projects in farmers’ fields and is also involved in a project with the Crop Trust, and is convinced that other on-the-ground strategies could prove more effective than seed vaults.
Fowler, however, insists that field conditions expose crops to the natural disasters and economic vagaries that made in-situ conservation so unpredictable. “It is out in the real world – that makes it vulnerable because you have typhoons, hurricanes, natural disasters and pests that come along,” he said. Other variables, such as families leaving farms for cities, can lead to varieties being lost. And keeping seeds close to the land offers no guarantees, either. “If you’ve got a crop, an heirloom variety, a traditional variety, somewhere in Africa, and you say, that’s great, it’s going to adapt to climate change – well, maybe not,” Fowler said. “If it doesn’t have the right traits, your farmer is going to starve or go out of business long before that crop will naturally adapt through mutation.”
* * *
In the light of day, the concrete portal of the seed vault looks a bit like an iceberg jutting out of the snow. The staff at the Crop Trust like the visual metaphor. The vault, they say, is just the beginning of their mission. That became clear the weekend of the Nordic officials’ visit to the seed bank, when Haga, in puffy red down jacket and socks, stood in the conference room of the other big hotel in Svalbard energetically pitching German and European Union officials and agribusiness executives about the trust’s next big idea.
In daylight, the concrete portal of the seed vault looks a bit like an iceberg jutting out of the snow. Photograph: Sipa Press/REX_ShutterstockThe Crop Trust is hoping to use the success of Svalbard to launch an even more ambitious plan. It is targeting governments, foundations and agribusiness, aiming to raise $850m, in order to provide permanent funding for the Svalbard seed vault and a number of seed banks in other countries. For those struggling to save diversity in the fields, it is a dazzling figure. But Haga clearly thinks it is within her grasp. Over the last seven years, the trust has carefully tended a network of supporters, inviting officials, company executives, and foundation chairs to tour the vault. Their visits are followed by some Arctic recreation: snowmobile trips to the glacier, dog-sledding with huskies. The vault is the trust’s prime exhibit and a key part of the sales strategy. “When you talk about a doomsday vault and you put a polar bear next to it, people are interested in finding out more about that,” the Crop Trust’s biodiversity adviser Frison said.
The logistics of using the vault to sell the Crop Trust’s larger mission are challenging, to say the least. In early February, Queen Sonja of Norway was due to visit, after a day of skiing and other outdoor activities in Svalbard. Haga drove up to the vault to welcome her. But as she was waiting, a blizzard roared in from Greenland. The Norwegian royal party decided to call off the visit – Queen Sonja is 77, after all. Haga was stranded at the vault, until the town snow plough lumbered up the hill to dig her out.
But Haga is indefatigable. She was already working to persuade Queen Sonja to return, and exploring the idea of bringing other European royals and celebrities to the vault. The Crop Trust’s mission is strictly focused on developing seed banks – and raising funds for that is a challenge. So far, with all the glamour of Svalbard, the trust has raised just $170m.
Whichever of the competing strategies for saving crop diversity is the right one – in seed banks or in the fields – the reality is that both approaches are starved of support. What has become clear to Haga is that the seed banks are in a terrible state. The material in storage is ageing dangerously fast – another few years and many of the samples will be too old to produce crops. Unless funds can be raised to plant the specimens out at research field stations and then store the next generation of seeds, the material will be worthless. Seed banks are also struggling to keep up with technology. In an age when anybody can take a cheek swab to check their DNA, painfully little is known about the genetics of the plants on which civilisation has depended for 10,000 years. The Crop Trust is funding programmes to create an online searchable database of global seed collections so plant breeders and scientists can seek out and then develop desirable traits for future varieties, but the work is painfully slow.
“Today, coming into a gene bank is a little bit like coming into a supermarket where you don’t have labels on cans,” said Haga.
What the Crop Trust proposed was a sort of triage on the major seed banks: selecting those worthy of support and winnowing out those not up to standard. In its early days, however, it is a process not unlike natural selection, Haga said. Only one of 11 major gene banks operated under the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centres met the Crop Trust’s standards and would be eligible for those funds: the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.
“The biggest surprise for everybody when we dived into the international gene banks was that they are not up to the standard that we had expected,” Haga said. “To me, it’s obvious, we can’t fund long-term any gene bank that isn’t up to standard because our goal is to make sure this terribly important natural resource is available for all future generations. I can’t go to a donor and ask them for in-perpetuity grants if I can’t guarantee that money is well spent.”
Pavel Poc, who chairs the European parliament’s climate change, biodiversity and sustainability group, was already a supporter. Over breakfast, a few weeks after our first meeting in Svalbard, he said he was looking for funding from the EU budget. “We can see with the Mona Lisa how valuable it is but we are not able to understand that every single crop variety that disappears is of similar value to great art,” he said. “Every single species we destroy – we can not simply develop again.”