The Doomsday Vault: An Insurance Policy For the World’s Food Supply

In Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is buried deep permafrost well within the Arctic Circle. The vault was created as a means to preserve human agriculture for an uncertain future. We first wrote about the vault back in 2014 (see below) after 20,000 varieties of critical food crops arrived to join a total of 800,000 seed samples from around the world.

The vault was built with the future in mind, but some of the prime reasons a country might want to withdraw seeds—war or natural disaster—are very much part of the present. Though there are plenty of seed vaults around the world, the Svalbard vault is the most secure.

In 2014, the story was about adding to the collection, and war-torn Syria was one of the depositors. What’s happened since then? For the first time, seeds were removed from the vault by a Syrian organization after it decided to move its seed bank from Aleppo to Beirut.

Last fall, the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) requested the withdrawal of nearly 130 of its 325 boxes deposited in the vault. It was the first withdrawal since the vault opened in 2008 and will hopefully help preserve the area’s agricultural heritage.

This is part of what the vault’s creators had in mind when they built it, but the bigger, longer-term goals remain too. While other gene banks save regional snapshots, the Svalbard vault, when complete, aims for a more global snapshot.

It’s a pretty amazing example of humans, so often focused on the near-term, thinking way ahead. Its total capacity is 2.25 billion seeds, and even without power, it’s thought the seeds would remain viable for many years. The Syrian withdrawal serves as a reminder of the project’s importance. Seeds are, after all, the foundation of our food.

“This is the basis for our morning slice of bread, for our morning coffee, for our afternoon tea,” Marie Haga, executive director of the Crop Trust, which operates the vault, told the Washington Post. “Almost all we eat has its origin in seeds, and the diversity of seeds.”

And it would seem the vault’s backers agree. The project’s endowment was doubled to $300 million earlier this year, and nearly half a billion has been invested overall since 2004.

To see what it’s like inside the vault—look no further. The folks at Veritasium have both curated a selection of news on the topic and produced this amazing video offering an inside tour. And for more details on why the vault was built and how it works, see our previous coverage below.

Backing Up the World’s Food Supply with 800,000 Plant Species on Ice

By Jason Dorrier

In March 2008, on a remote Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, or “doomsday vault,” took its first deposits. The vault’s builders had spent some $7 million and 12 months blasting a tunnel and three chambers into the mountainside’s hard permafrost. To be stored within? Treasure.

The doomsday vault keeps the world’s agricultural heritage in deep freeze. Six years on, and after a recent deposit of 20,000 species, the vault now houses over 800,000 plant species, and with an average 500 seeds per sample, some 400 million seeds.

That may sound like a lot, but the doomsday vault was designed to store more. A lot more. At full capacity, in drawers lining the walls of its three chambers, the vault can fit 4.5 million species and some 2.25 billion seeds.

Think of the doomsday vault as the external hard drive backing up the genetic data of the world’s plant-based food. Or, if you prefer, a modern day Noah’s Ark for wheat, corn, rice—the world’s agricultural species in all their diversity.

The doomsday vault's entrance is a patchwork of reflective steel, mirror glass, and prisms lit by the arctic sun in summer and fiber optics in winter.
The doomsday vault’s entrance is a patchwork of reflective steel, mirror glass, and prisms lit by the arctic sun in summer and fiber optics in winter.

In addition to civilization ending disasters—nuclear war, asteroid or comet strike, biblical floods, zombies—the world’s 1,400 gene banks and their precious seed stores are susceptible to war, poor management, and natural disasters.

A typhoon wiped out most of an important gene bank storing rice in the Philippines, and Japan recently sent barley samples (its first contribution) to the doomsday vault as scientists there fretted their own gene bank’s safety following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Gene banks in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, were destroyed in recent years. In Afghanistan, looters were after the glass jars storing the seeds.

The doomsday vault is said to be impervious to nuclear war or asteroid strike, and its location on a remote island in a rich, stable European country adds security. But perhaps the vault’s greatest attribute is the arctic cold chilling its chambers of seeds.

Under power, the inner sanctum is kept at -18 degrees Celsius. Even lacking power, the seeds would remain viable for years. The permafrost acts as a natural freezer, maintaining a temperature below freezing.

The idea of collecting seeds is not exactly new. The US Department of Agriculture has been at it for over a century. Beyond saving species to maintain diversity, seed gatherers save them for their DNA. Genetic variants found in certain species, for example, confer resistance to disease or drought.

“That’s why you have to collect everything. Because just by looking at the material in a farmer’s field you might say, ‘That one’s no good. Don’t collect it.’ But you can’t anticipate what value that might have. There may be genes in that material that are gonna be of immense value in the future,” Mike Bonman told 60 Minutes when the vault first opened in 2008.

As early as the 1950s, researchers have similarly collected animal DNA. Unlike plants, of course, bringing animals back to life is still out of reach—but getting closer every year.

In 2003, researchers attempted to revive the Pyrenean ibex, extinct since 2000, using frozen tissue. The cloned ibex died ten minutes after its birth due to respiratory complications. More recently, researchers attempted to resurrect the gastric brooding frog, extinct since 1984, using cells frozen in the 1970s.

Although no de-extinction effort has yet been successful in animals, seeds are easier to revive. Provided proper storage, one need only thaw and plant them in the ground.

seeds-handsThe Svalbard vault’s contents are growing at a healthy clip, adding 400,000 species since 2011. Even so, at that pace, it’ll take the better part of a decade to reach full capacity.

And what then?

Those tending the vault will maintain its precious cargo as long as they have funding to do so. And after they’re gone, maybe some brave explorer on post-apocalyptic Earth, having come upon an ancient reference to the vault and its location, will make an epic voyage to restore the planet’s farmland to its former glory.

Or maybe things won’t turn out so badly, and we’ll simply have a snapshot of the world’s crops at the beginning of the 21st century—a time capsule of green, growing things.

Image Credit: Mari Tefre/Svalbard Globale Seed Vault, furtwangl/Flickr

In Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is buried deep in permafrost a few kilometers from the Arctic Circle

Jason Dorrier
Jason Dorrier
Jason is editorial director of Singularity Hub. He researched and wrote about finance and economics before moving on to science and technology. He's curious about pretty much everything, but especially loves learning about and sharing big ideas and advances in artificial intelligence, computing, robotics, biotech, neuroscience, and space.
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