Back in 2009, you may recall hearing the news that Ireland had made its formal deposit to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The Department of Agriculture proudly updated its website to inform the Irish public of the momentous occasion; but even today, do we really understand the importance of a vault, hidden away in the mountains of northern Norway, guarding the world's supply of vital crop seeds?
Svalbard's 'Doomsday Vault'
Svalbard Global Seed Vault is considered to be one of the most important buildings in the agricultural world, but its role provides protection for more than just the carefully-chosen seeds.
The vault, through its deliberate position, conditions and management, ensures that the global population will have enough food regardless of catastrophes, climate change or world wars. This is especially relevant today, considering that the United Nations continue to warn us of impending food shortages.
Luckily for Ireland, we produce almost thirty times the amount of food we consume, making us one of the most productive agricultural countries in the world, relative to our size. However other countries are not as lucky, and the global population as a whole is consuming food at a much speedier rate than our farming community is producing.
The Norwegian seed bank was officially opened in 2008, when it first accepted seeds for safe-keeping. The vault is located in Spitsbergen, an island that remains permanently frozen and is situated so far away from major cities that any wars, nuclear or otherwise, cannot affect it.
The vault's proximity to the North Pole also ensures that even in the case of severe global warming, the natural temperatures of the region will not rise enough to spoil the preservation of the seeds.
Physically, the seeds are safe from any man-made attempts to interfere. There are steel walls surrounding the vault's rooms, about a metre in thickness. Blast-proof doors and sophisticated airlocks guard the entrances. It may sound like something from a sci-fi movie, but the Global Crop Diversity Trust has ensured that one of Earth's most important natural resources, crops, remain safe.
International Seed Banks
There are over 1,000 seed banks in the world, although Svalbard remains the leading premises in crop-protection. However, Svalbard is not the biggest seed bank!
England's 'Millenium Seed Bank' in West Sussex is the largest bank, containing nearly 20% of the world's seed types at the moment.
The oldest seed bank, however, is in Russia. Nikolai Vavilov, a botanist and geneticist born in the late 1800s, created the world's first official seed bank in St Petersburg. The most interesting aspect of this vault is the fact that it survived World War II's Siege of Leningrad, which lasted more than two years.
The Uses of Seed Banks
Seed banks are often considered to be 'gene banks' as they can preserve seeds for centuries, even from crops that may not be used in today's world. One of the main reasons for retaining these unused crop seeds is that as technology and medicine progresses, more and more uses are being discovered for previously overlooked crops.
Biodiversity is another reason for seed bank existence. Keeping crops healthy through genetic diversity is a good form of protection against diseases. A well-known example among agricultural experts is that of the Irish Potato Famine! Some say that if our own potato yields were more genetically diverse back in the 1800s, the blight that struck so disastrously wouldn't have spread so easily.
Seed banks aren't open for public access, and this ensures that the protected seeds are managed and distributed by well-organised managerial bodies.
For example, when a natural disaster struck Sri Lanka and Malaysia back in 2004, those in charge of the international seed banks were able to efficiently orchestrate the redistribution of seeds lost by local farmers.
In some cases, seeds can be kept viable for more than a thousand years! The most famous case of seed preservation is the Judean Date Palm. Its seed was found during archaeological excavations of an Israeli palace, and carbon-14 dating revealed that the seed was about 2,000 years old! With great care and expertise, the seed grew into a living plant, showing just how resilient our world's crops can be.
What Conditions Do Seed Banks Need to Work?
Seeds will inevitably die, so planting and re-harvesting is necessary when seeds reach the end of their viability. This can vary from plant to plant.
All seeds are usually dried to a lower water-content level, and then stored at about -18°C or less.
A considerable amount of paper work is also needed to successfully record seed data, and this takes up a significant amount of time on behalf of botanists.
Although many seed banks across the world have been designed to withstand a world without electricity, the idea of keeping each and every specimen throughout the international vaults at the correct temperature and within safe conditions would be extremely difficult without power. This has caused many sceptics to question just how useful a seed bank would be in the event of a cataclysmic event.
However, in a world where technology is still progressing, populations are still increasing, and food supplies are being depleted, the least we can do is try to preserve the farming community's greatest resource.