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Svalbard Global Seed Vault

With our current industrial and agricultural practices, the human race is risking the planet’s rich biodiversity day by day. This is particularly apparent in crop diversity, while crop yields have increased, biodiversity has decreased to the point that now only about 30 crops provide 95% of human food-energy needs. In fact, the US has lost over 90% of fruit and vegetable varieties since the 1900s and China currently use only 10% of rice varieties compared to that since the 1950s. This decrease in diversity is a result of modern agriculture methods and innovation, many of the crop varieties now grown are more resistant to pests and produce larger yields quicker. Whilst this may appear to be a good thing, the issue is that by losing the vast majority of other varieties it puts immense pressure on the remaining ones to be able to survive unknown future diseases for example. This is where gene banks like Svalbard Seed Vault come in, they act as banks storing duplicates of seed varieties from across the world. Worldwide, more than 1,700 gene banks hold collections of food crops for safekeeping, yet many of these are vulnerable, exposed not only to natural catastrophes and war, but also to avoidable disasters, such as lack of funding or poor management. Svalbard Seed Vault is built to stand the test of time, isolated and safe from war or natural disasters the vault is the largest and most secure gene bank on the planet.

There are many gene banks holding crop seeds all over the world, so why is Svalbard so important? “It is away from the places on earth where you have war and terror, everything maybe you are afraid of in other places. It is situated in a safe place,” says Bente Naeverdal, a property manager who oversees the day-to-day operation of the vault. Gene banks are a protection against the human mistakes of past, present, and future as well as security against natural disasters, disease and pest caused biodiversity loss. Gene banks in Afghanistan and Iraq have been destroyed as a result of warfare and as a result, many varieties of genetic material were lost forever. ICARDA a global agricultural research organisation previously based in Syria was forced to flee its headquarters in Aleppo due to the civil war, it was one of the world's most essential collections of seeds containing some of the oldest barley and wheat varieties. Fortunately, ICARDA had made deposits into Svalbard Seed Vault and after relocating its headquarters to Morocco and Lebanon the gene bank was restarted with the first-ever withdrawal from Svalbard. Some gene banks such as the Philippine national gene bank have been damaged and destroyed by natural disasters, the bank in the Philippines was affected by a typhoon and a resulting fire. Gene banks in nations lacking the resources or the security of governance are also at risk, programs may be shut down, underfunded, or overlooked. All these factors combined with the fact Svalbard is the largest gene bank make its importance paramount to the security of crop biodiversity on this planet. The genetic diversity contained in the vault could provide the DNA required to develop new strains for whatever challenges the world or a particular region will face in the future.

Why Svalbard, how is it secure and how does it work? Located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago the island is the farthest north a person can fly on a scheduled flight. The vault is located 100 meters deep into a mountain providing maximum security from outside harm. The vault has the capacity to hold 4.5 million varieties of crops, each variety containing an average of 500 seeds. Acting as a global gene bank, any country can deposit or withdraw seeds providing the seeds are shared under the Multilateral System or under Article 15 of the International Treaty or seeds that have originated in the country of the depositor. Nations may only access seeds they themselves have deposited. The vault is home to a range of unique varieties of major African and Asian food staples such as maize, rice, wheat, cowpea, and sorghum to European and South American varieties of eggplant, lettuce, barley, and potato. The seeds are kept safe in vacuum sealed packaging. A temperature of -18ºC is required for optimal storage of the seeds, in the event of a power loss, permafrost as well as the thick rock surrounding the vault will maintain the required temperature. The design of the vault ensures the protection of the sacred crop biodiversity in the event that we ever need it, making it one of the most important places on our planet.

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