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.
Table of Contents
The purpose of the vault
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.
How seed deposits work
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:
- The depositor signs an agreement with the Norwegian Ministry of Agriculture and Food which can be seen here.
- The seeds are packed in airtight aluminium pouches in accordance with the Vault's rules.
Storage box and seed pouches for vault. Photo: Nordgen
- The depositor emails NordGen detailed information for each sample. This is used for vault management and providing data to the public via the Seed Portal website. NordGen officials told us the database is kept up to date every time new deposits or withdrawals are made.
- Shipping documentation is prepared and samples are sent via courier. Samples are referred to as an "accession" and typically average 500 seeds in a packet.
- Upon arrival in Svalbard, Pole Position Logistics delivers the samples to the vault.
Pole Position Logistics delivering seeds to the vault. Photo: Pole Position
- The depositor and NordGen maintain contact for storage management and to arrange any withdrawals or disposal of samples.
Once deposited, all seeds are stored under "black box" principles. Meaning the depositing institution retains ownership and only they may withdraw them.
The main types of seeds in the vault
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:
- 1 - Pearl Millet (84 million - 13,2%): A nutritious grain which can grow in arid regions. Can be used for animal feed. Used widely across Africa and India.
Pearl Millet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
- 2 - Asian Rice (82 million - 12,7%): The most important grain for half the world's population, especially Asia. Most common version is oryza sativa.
Asian rice, oryza sativa. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
- 3 - Finger Millet (71 million - 11,1%): An under-appreciated nutritious, hardy cereal crop that is a staple in eastern and southern Africa plus India.
Finger Millet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
- 4 - Common Wheat (54 million - 8,4%): Also known as bread wheat. The most grown food crop in the world, and 20% of world calorie consumption.
Common Wheat. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
- 5 - Broom-corn (47 million - 7,4%): Also called sorghum, the fifth most produced grain in the world. Its firm stalks are also used to make brooms.
Broom-corn. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
- 6 - Common Barley (47 million - 7,3%): Still the number 4 grain, but in medieval Europe and the Middle East was probably the most important.
Common Barley. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
- 7 - Maize (19 million - 3,0%): Technically ahead of wheat as the most grown grain, but not the top for food because most is for ethanol or animal feed. Very biodiverse and in need of genetic preservation due to monoculture.
Maize. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
- 8 - Foxtail Millet (14 million - 2,1%): The oldest (6000 BC in China) cultivated millet. Does well in dry regions and widely used throughout Asia and Africa.
Foxtail Millet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
- 9 - Chickpea (11 million - 1,7%): Legume consumed in India (producers of 67% of world total), the Middle East, and now spread globally. Only non-grain in top 9. And let's face it: a world without hummus would be poorer.
Chickpea plant. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Hallucinogens yes, GMOs (most likely) no
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:
- When she initially asked the various institutions who manage the vault, she got mixed responses from "No" to "sure, why not?"
- The official response from the Norwegian Ministry for Agriculture and Food was there are no GMOs in the vault because it is not certified to store them.
- The ministry could in theory issue a waiver to allow GMOs, but due to the controversy around the issue, there is no political will to do so.
- Even if there was political will, GMOs probably wouldn't be allowed because intellectual property rules mean they don't meet the rule for "multilateral access" - i.e., general availability for research and conservation purposes.
- However, because there is no requirement to test of seeds before deposit, and no access to non-owners is allowed once in the vault, there is a slight but unknowable possibility some GMOs having unwittingly gotten in.
Where in the world do the seeds come from?
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.
Who puts 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 largest is the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) who have 230 million or 36% of all the seeds in the Vault. Based in Hyderabad, India and focused on South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, they are particularly focused on crops that do well in drylands, are highly nutritious, have positive environmental impacts, and are particularly beneficial for small farmers. For example, 86% of the finger millet and (while not a grain) 74% of the kikuyu grass in the vault.
- Second is the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) who have 13% of the seeds. Headquartered in Lebanon with offices and scientists across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It's not surprising that the top two institutions are specifically focused on dry areas where food crops are particularly vulnerable.
- Third is the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS) of the US Department of Agriculture with 12%. The only national-level institution to crack the top four, they manage 30 genebanks across the United States in a broad public-private partnership. Their mission is focused on preserving plant material before it disappears in the face of monoculture, climate change, urbanization, and other factors.
- And fourth is the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) based in the Philippines with 10% of the Vault's seeds. With half the planet dependent on rice as a staple, their work to ensure the health of rice breeds and farming techniques is crucial. More than half of the rice area planted in Asia derives from varieties IRRI developed. They have offices in 17 rice-growing countries across Asia and Africa.
When have seeds been deposited and withdrawn from the vault?
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.