Looking out the back door of Svalbarði's headquarters we can see the famous Svalbard Global Seed Vault right up the hill. Few people know what seeds are actually inside, so we decided to find out the facts by combing through operator NordGen's detailed Seed Portal database.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault contains 642 million seeds and has the ability to hold up to 2,5 billion. The vault has a particular focus on food crops, so 69% of the seeds are grains (rice the biggest at 85 million) and 9% legumes. The rest of the roughly 6000 species are a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other plants. Including hallucinogenic plants such as cannabis and opium, though no GMOs. 76 institutions with seeds from 223 different countries and territories have made deposits in the vault. The largest number of seeds come from India at 95 million.
Relative number of seeds in the vault by country. Darker represents more.
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The "doomsday vault" exists to serve as backup storage for plant genebanks all around the world, especially for food crops. With numerous species threatened by climate change, natural disasters, or man-made disasters, the risk of permanent extinction and/or loss of critical biodiversity is ever-present. That biodiversity is vital for developing crop varieties that can withstand pests and diseases in addition to being able to bounce back from near-extinction events.
Regional genebanks are the first line of defense. But if they fail for reasons as simple as power outages or as complex as war, those seeds can be quickly lost. That is the reason the vault was opened in Svalbard - a second ultimate line of defense in the distant arctic permafrost where genebanks can store duplicate seeds.
When it opened in February 2008, 112 million seeds were deposited. And with room for 2.5 billion seeds, even with today's 642 million stored, it is only a quarter full after more than a decade. It has space to hold duplicates of every seed in every one of the 1700+ genebanks in the world, with room for new seed species in the future.
Any genebank in the world may utilize the vault so long as they sign on to the general principles set up by the Norwegian government. The process works like this:
Storage box and seed pouches for vault. Photo: Nordgen
Pole Position Logistics delivering seeds to the vault. Photo: Pole Position
Once deposited, all seeds are stored under "black box" principles. Meaning the depositing institution retains ownership and only they may withdraw them.
Not surprisingly for a facility primarily designed as a backup for food and agriculture, the vast majority of the seeds in the vault - 444 million or 69% - are grains such as rice, millet, wheat, corn, barley, etc. Legumes such as chickpeas, beans, lentils, etc. are second at 9% or 58 million seeds. The remaining 22% contains a vast array of nearly 6000 different species of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other plants.
When it comes to the top specific species in the vault, a mere 9 make up 2/3 of the seeds. The top 9 being:
Pearl Millet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Asian rice, oryza sativa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Finger Millet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Common Wheat. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Broom-corn. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Common Barley. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Maize. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Foxtail Millet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Chickpea plant. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In terms of "bio-safety" (if we might call it that), it is a bit amusing to note that while GMOs are banned from the vault, over 100 thousand seeds from hallucinogenic plants are stored inside. These include opium (75 thousand), marijuana (19 thousand of cannabis sativa), jimsonweed/jamestown weed (13 thousand), and African rue (3 thousand).
Opium poppies. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Of course these all have non-psychoactive uses so we would assume those are the purposes for storing. And they represent only 0,02% of all the seeds in the vault. 30 different countries have deposited them, with the most numerous being from Austria (18 thousand) and Hungary (11 thousand). Even North Korea has 1000 (500 each opium and cannabis).
On GMOs, the Crop Trust which co-manages the vault with NordGen states that pre-vault Norwegian law "effectively prohibits" having GMOs in the vault.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Rumours nonetheless fly, so Fern Wickson of Norway's GenØk Centre for Biosafety undertook an in-depth investigation of whether the rules actually ban them and whether there actually are any inside. You can read her full report here, but the basic summary is:
There are seeds from all continents including Antarctica (though technically those are from some small islands between Antarctica and Africa). Asia and Africa make up 62%. 11% of the seeds are of unknown (or at least unlabeled) geographic origin.
Half of the seeds come from just 17 countries. Not quite as concentrated as the 6 crops that make half the seeds, but still significant. India is by far the largest and several large population countries are in that first half, but smaller places like Zimbabwe, Nepal, and Laos with their heavy economic dependence on agriculture make the list as well.
In total, those 17 countries are a bit more than half the world's population as well, so the seed deposits are proportional to population in a big-picture sense. That breaks down by country though with China, in particular, having a much bigger percentage of the world's population than its proportion of seeds in the vault.
There are 76 different institutions who have placed seeds in the vault. Some are national-level organizations, but many if not most gather from multiple countries. 37 gather seeds from more than one continent, and one - the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands - actually gathers from all 7 continents including Antarctica (or as mentioned before, a near-Antarctic island).
65% of the seeds have been deposited by just 4 institutions:
The Vault's official opening ceremony was on 26 February 2008. On that same day, 112 million seeds - 17% of the total seeds to date - were deposited. Further deposits the rest of the year doubled that initial number. Annual deposits continued a slower pace for several years but from 2016 onwards have picked up somewhat. 2018's 78 million seeds were the highest since 2010 thanks to 35 different institutions making deposits.
There have only been three withdrawals of seeds to date, all by ICARDA and all related to the civil war in Syria. The organization's genebank in Tal Hadya, Syria was at constant threat of losing power due to the fighting raging in the region around Aleppo. Seeds need to be kept at -20°C despite summer temperatures that can go over +40°C. Rebels controlling the area allowed the facility to keep operating as the facility's diesel power backup benefited them. But because of the constant threat of destruction, duplicate seeds in Svalbard were requested by the organization's facilities elsewhere.
Tel Hadya, Syria genebank. Photo: ICARDA
Withdrawals occurred in 2015, 2017, and 2019 with seeds taken to ICARDA genebanks in Lebanon and Morocco. Re-germination and planting were very successful and new backup seeds have been redeposited in 2017, 2018, and 2019, with more to come.
The withdrawal involved dozens of species including multiple varieties of wheat, peas, and clover. To date, 25 million seeds from 53 different species have been re-deposited.
Even before the civil war, Syria had been suffering a damaging drought that had driven many farmers off the land and into the cities. With war further exacerbating the threat to food and animal feed supplies in a region heavily exposed to food insecurity. The vault has now truly proven its worth in a real-life situation.
Svalbarði, climate change, and biodiversity
Our mission at Svalbarði is to help save the Arctic by combatting global warming. But global warming, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and mass extinction are all, in reality, interlinked problems. For example, one of the key projects Svalbarði has helped finance provides easier access to clean drinking water in sub-Saharan Africa via new and repaired borehole wells.
This prevents the need to travel long distances to gather impure water, which must then be boiled utilizing firewood gathered from local forests. This destruction of forest land - also seen in ongoing deforestation fires in Brazil and Indonesia - destroys many plant species before they are even discovered. With the forests then often replaced by desertification or monoculture farming that further reduces the biodiversity needed to deal with a warming and changing climate.
So join us in the fight against the interwoven environmental challenges of our era by enjoying carbon negative Svalbarði. With every bottle purchased, you stop enough greenhouse gas emissions to save 100kg of the North Pole ice cap, helping the environment from the Arctic to the tropics.